The Global U-Bend Of Happiness

All these years I’ve believed that, underneath it all, people are the same. Now it seems there’s some research to back me up.

Oh, I know. You’re probably thinking that the human core – heart, mind, spirit – may be similar, but certainly the circumstances in which we are born, live and die serve to make us very, very different.

Especially when it comes to happiness. Surely there must be differences in personal contentedness across the First, Second and Third Worlds?

You need only turn on the television, open a newspaper, pick up a magazine or go online to find headlines of heartache, misery and discontent. Poverty, famine, disease, and natural disasters plague many, not to mention totalitarian regimes, gender bias, income inequality, lack of educational opportunities or suitable housing.That’s all true, and yet it seems we global inhabitants are more alike than we know.

I was culling through a pile of reading material the other day and came across an article from The Economist that I’d obviously saved for future reading. Entitled The U-Bend of Life, the premise was that as people move beyond middle age, they tend to become happier.

Happiness is generally measured indirectly, through the factors deemed to create it. But some researchers have attempted to measure happiness directly. Governments have even gotten into game as well: Bhutan, France, Britain and the US are among several that try to officially quantify the happiness of their citizens through various means.

Asking two basic types of questions (essentially how do you feel about your life as a whole and did you feel happy/contented/anxious/angry yesterday) on a scale of one to ten, researchers have uncovered a U-bend of well-being that holds up across countries. In short, the majority of people begin adult life relatively content: the level of happiness indicated starts high in our 20s, slowly decreases with time, bottoms out as we hit our early 50s, then increases steadily, hitting new heights by our 70s and 80s.

Most importantly, research conducted by professors at Warwick Business School and Dartmouth College found that this U-bend of happiness carried across all 72 countries they investigated. Of course citizens of some countries report being happier than others, and the ages in which people from various countries tend to hit the trough of their happiness levels may differ slightly. But what is interesting is that the U-shape is maintained; it merely moves higher or lower on the well-being scale of one to ten, or shifts by a few years in either direction.

The mid-life crisis may well exist, with the dip in happiness during middle age attributed to the realization that our lives are halfway over and we might not be entirely pleased with how we’re doing, what we’ve accomplished or who we’ve become.

Then again, it could also be affected by the challenge of dealing with teenagers or concerns as our children try to find their way into adulthood. Or perhaps being saddled with exorbitant university bills, or the cost of helping to support financially our under- or unemployed adult children (see the penultimate paragraph below).

The reasons we tend to grow happier as we approach our twilight years? Laura Carstensen, professor of psychology at Stanford refers to ‘the uniquely human ability to recognize our own mortality and monitor our own time horizons’. This is ‘edu-speak’ meaning that as we grow closer to death, we understand that our time is dwindling and we get better at living in the present. We accept that we are ageing, and focus more on what matters to us: feelings, and being with the people we care about.

So what factors seem to matter most in terms of contributing to making people happy? Apparently four main ones: gender, personality, external circumstances and age.

Women seem to be slightly happier than men; they also appear more susceptible to depression, with 20-25% of women experiencing some level of depression in their lives and only 10% of men.

In terms of personality, two traits appear to matter greatly: neuroticism (the tendency to experience negative states such as anxiety, anger and guilt) and extroversion. In the case of the former, those prone to negative feelings tend to have lower emotional and social intelligence (at least during those periods) and thus have a more difficult time forming and maintaining relationships. In terms of the latter, it isn’t that introverts aren’t able to experience happiness and other positive emotions; it seems that they merely rate themselves less happy than extroverts. This tends to carry across cultures as well: a study among British, Chinese and Japanese respondents found that the Brits as a culture tended to be happier and more extroverted than the other two groups.

External circumstances that can impact one’s level of happiness can range from race, income, health, education, marriage and relationships. Married people generally tend to be happier than single people, unless of course you’re miserable in your marriage. What I found particularly relevant during these uncertain economic times is the finding that unemployment is more depressive than you might imagine. How does that bode for the relative level of happiness in countries experiencing excruciatingly high and prolonged levels of unemployment?

And age? Well, it appears that the U-bend of happiness says it all.

A writer and American expat living in the Netherlands with her husband and two teens, Linda pens articles on expat life and blogs at Adventures in Expat Land sharing the good, the less good and the just plain odd with a twist. She is also a co-author of the recent bestseller Turning Points: 25 Inspiring Stories from Women Entrepreneurs.

You may also follow Linda’s adventures on Twitter @in_expatland.