The data are in: Life under Putin is a continuous downward spiral into despair

Recently the Brookings Institution's Carol Graham released a striking chart (below) showing the relationship between age and happiness around the world, as measured via the Gallup World Poll (conducted from 2011 to 2013). She describes it as "a U-shaped curve, with the low point in happiness being at roughly age 40 around  the world." The takeaway? Once we've passed a certain point "things get better as we age, as long as we are reasonably healthy (age-adjusted) and in a stable partnership."

relationship between age and happiness

Graham explained to me that this relationship is fairly universal -- it shows up across countries, across generations, and even among apes. But there's some bad news in here for millennials -- as if coming of age in the worst job market in modern memory wasn't enough, statistically speaking the worst is still far ahead of them. The happiness curve for the United States bottoms out at about age 47. This means that for the average 25-year-old, life will continually become worse over the next two decades before things finally start to turn around. You think you're having a bad today? Remember the immortal words of Homer Simpson: "This isn't the worst day of your life -- this is only the worst day of your life so far."

But American millennials can at least be thankful that they don't live in Russia. Graham provided me with data on the happiness curves for various countries, which are plotted below. One important caveat -- these charts only look at the relationship between age and happiness within countries. Happiness values are relative, and cannot be compared between countries.

happiness age russia united states

In most countries, the happiness curve bottoms out somewhere around middle age -- 47 in the United States and 41 in Britain, for instance. This usually happens long before the average person is expected to die, with one major exception: Russia. In Russia the curve doesn't bottom out until age 91. Essentially, life under Putin is one continuous downward spiral into despair.

Graham explains it bluntly: "What's going on in Russia is deep unhappiness." In the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development's Better Life Index, for instance, Russians rated their general life satisfaction a 3.0 out of 10. Three-quarters of Russians are "struggling" or "suffering," with only 25 percent "thriving," according to their responses to a 2012 Gallup survey. Contrast these figures with the United States, where life satisfaction is a robust 7.6 and nearly 60 percent are thriving.

At least American millennials can expect life to get better for three full decades after they hit rock bottom. In Russia, the only thing to look forward to is death's sweet embrace.

Christopher Ingraham writes about politics, drug policy and all things data. He previously worked at the Brookings Institution and the Pew Research Center.
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