How to Find Happiness at Any Age

What floats our boat changes as we get older. Here, science’s take on our well-being

by Lindsy Van Gelder
happy face image
Photograph: Dan Saelinger

Another big study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, found the same U-bend in a survey of 340,000 Americans ages 18 to 85. When researchers teased out the numbers to look at different emotions along the curve, they were able to paint a nuanced picture. Anger is at its highest in 18- to 21-year-olds; stress peaks at 22 to 25. Enjoyment hits bottom at 42 to 45; worry is at its highest at 46 to 49. And happiness reaches its low point at 54 to 57. The study also revealed that stress, worry and sadness were all considerably higher for women than for men.

That may be part of a troubling trend. Female happiness has declined since the 1970s, according to a provocative study from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. Note the researchers: “Women no longer report being happier than men and in many instances now report happiness that is below that of men.” The study controlled for many factors—having or not having a job, a partner or children—and the gap persisted. (Black women’s happiness, however, has followed a slightly different trajectory: In 1972 they reported being less happy than black men, unlike white women, who were happier than white men.)

If you’re in your fifties, feel free to cheer up: Your life will probably only get better. If you’re in your thirties or forties, then, sorry, things may get worse before the sun comes out. How soon life improves depends partly on your own attitude. If you accept that maybe you’ll never be a member of Congress or open for the Boss, you can shake off a lot of stress and angst. Then go outdoors and admire the stars. “Happiness is best thought of as a skill,” says sociologist Christine Carter at the University of California, Berkeley. Another quick route to happiness: Try to be realistic about your kids. “Modern parents have really high expectations that our own parents didn’t have for a level of involvement in our kids’ lives, and they take their children’s failures very personally,” says Carter. She advises her Gen X clients to think less about micromanaging their kids’ happiness and start concentrating more on their own.

Here’s my own unscientific summary: In your thirties, happiness is about other people. In your forties, those other people are driving you crazy, and you’re miserable. In your fifties, some of those relationships have resolved—your kids may have launched themselves, you may have left a bad marriage or learned to trust a good one. Then come the sixties, when life is about you again. Happiness, in its many forms, is quite a ride. 

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