Pamela Newkirk is a professor of journalism at New York University and the author of “Spectacle: The Astonishing Life of Ota Benga.”
Thanks to modern medicine, the lifespan of the average adult has increased by more than a decade and will probably expand even more in years to come. If that isn’t enough of a silver lining, journalist Jonathan Rauch offers even more good news about aging in his book “The Happiness Curve: Why Life Gets Better After 50.”
The optimistic, breezy title could easily be dismissed as wishful thinking. However, Rauch’s rosy projection is based less on new-age optimism than a review of a series of multi-country, big-data studies on happiness conducted over the past few decades. The findings by scholars from a range of disciplines consistently show that life satisfaction is U-shaped, with contentment high in the 20s, plunging at mid-age and taking a turn for the better after 50.
The ample scholarship on the “happiness curve” debunks many long-standing beliefs about aging and happiness and shows that contrary to being over the hill, people over 50 are generally happier than they were during their 30s and 40s.
For example, the Office of National Statistics in England surveyed more than 300,000 people of different ages in 2014 and 2015 and asked, “Overall, how satisfied are you with your life nowadays?” Like other studies cited by Rauch, the results showed that life satisfaction was high between 20 and 34 and hit its lowest point around 49 or 50, then began to rise, peaking in the mid-60s.
Similarly, research on data sets from 37 countries by David Blanchflower, a Dartmouth College economics professor, found the same U in response to the question “If you were to consider your life in general, how happy or unhappy would you say you are, on the whole.” In another data set of 305,000 people in Britain, the U bottomed at age 49, which is also when stress and anxiety peaked.
In a paper Blanchflower co-authored with British colleague Andrew Oswald, they wrote: “We show that wellbeing reaches its minimum around the middle of life. The regularity is intriguing. The U shape is similar for males and females, and for each side of the Atlantic Ocean.” Analysis of the Gallup World Poll of 99 percent of the world’s adult population between 2010 and 2012 also showed that people got happier over time.
In a study of the data of 1 million Britons between the ages of 16 and 70, scholars found that the probability of depression peaked in the mid-40s. In yet another study of two states in the United States, the highest probability of consuming antidepressants occurred between ages 45 and 49. So, contrary to popular perceptions, depression is less common among the elderly than the middle-aged.
And the U is not unique to humans; it is also found in apes, according to a 2012 study by Oswald; Alex Weis, a comparative psychologist; and several collaborators. The study, “Evidence for a Midlife Crisis in Great Apes Consistent with the U-Shape in Human Wellbeing,” says the U “may lie partly in the biology we share with closely related great apes.”
Not all of the research cited by Rauch is surprising. Research on wisdom, for example, suggests its correlation with age, and in the United States, people in the highest income group were found to be almost twice as likely as people in the lowest group to describe themselves as “very happy.”
But given the variables among people’s experiences, it is impossible to meaningfully apply the curve found in large data sets to an individual. An unhappy 60-year-old who was more content at 30 or 40 could find the conclusions irrelevant. The U-curve, Rauch cautions, “is not an inevitability; it’s a tendency.” But it’s a tendency that drives the 218 pages of text, which become somewhat redundant once the curve is substantially established. Similarly, interviews Rauch conducted, sprinkled throughout the book, sometimes detract from the far more compelling scholarship. Many of the interviewees are introduced by only a first name and occupation that serve to underscore their obscurity. At times Rauch chronicles the trajectory of his own life, presumably to show that it tracks with the book’s central premise.
“In my own forties,” he writes, “my life satisfaction was low, and much lower than I thought it should be.” Like the other personal stories, the reflection seems immaterial given the range of experiences that contribute to one’s personal contentment at a given age. The utility of the anecdotes is further undermined by Rauch himself, who writes that the happiness curve “shows up more clearly and consistently after filtering out people’s life circumstances than before.” For instance, while unemployment substantially affects life satisfaction, Blanchflower and Oswald found that going from age 20 to 45 “decreases life satisfaction by about a third as much as becoming unemployed.” And the World Values Survey, which polls people in 150 countries about their life satisfaction, found that social interaction was among the factors that most contributed to wellbeing. Other studies had similar findings. “If required to choose,” Rauch writes, “the experiments show, you would be better off with less health but more social ties than the other way around.”
The strength of the book, then, is less the personal anecdotes than what appears to be overwhelming evidence of a happiness curve after 50 that could inspire a societal reassessment of later-life planning. “We are in the process of adding perhaps two decades to the most satisfying and pro-social period of life,” Rauch writes. “Some sociologists call this new stage of life encore adulthood. Whatever you call it, it is a gift the likes of which mankind has never known before.”
Rauch argues that outdated social conventions and assumptions need to be revised to create a “U-friendly environment,” one that reflects these insights into the aging process. “By telling them that their best years are behind them at age fifty, we make them gloomy about the future,” Rauch says. “In all of those ways, by telling the wrong story about adult development, we bait and set the midlife trap.”
In a youth-obsessed culture, it may be difficult to convince some that life gets better after 50. But by supplanting dated cliches with compelling scholarship, Rauch offers a fresh and reassuring vision of aging that supersedes superficial fixations.
By Jonathan Rauch
Thomas Dunne. 244 pp. $26.99