What got me into this issue is the dominance of the “U-shape” story in the economic literature on happiness. The dominant story is that we get miserable in mid-life as the stresses of life are piled onto us and then get happier again the closer we get to death. It didnt seem right, either from the point of view of raw data nor intuitively, so we set to work. The main findings of our study can be summarised by the graph below, where you can see the way happiness changes over the lifetime in Australia, the UK and Germany for a representative individual starting at a 7 on a 0-10 scale.
This Graph summarises data from over 50,000 individuals in Australia, the UK, and Germany, followed over more than 10 years. It turns out that individuals are happiest early into retirement years (65-75) and at their most miserable close to death (80-90), with relatively little changing in the years before retirement. Our interpretation is that individuals older than 65 no longer have unrealistic expectations of what their life will be like and simply enjoy reasonable health and wealth, leading to a marked surge in happiness. As their health starts to deteriorate after 75, their happiness plunges.
- For Australia, in a sample of over 10,000 Australians followed for over 10 years (the HILDA dataset), the happiness of a representative person who is a 7 on a 10-point scale hardly experiences any change in his happiness until about age 50 after which happiness climbs to 7.3 at age 65, dropping off increasingly fast as death approaches, being no more than 6.5 when over 90 years old. In the picture it shows up as the blue line which tells you how the happiness of this Australian actually changes as he ages.
- For the UK, it is a similar story, but the happiness peak is slightly later (age 70) and the peak itself is less high reaching only 7.2, declining to 6.3 when over 90. Life in old age is clearly relatively better in Australia than the UK, perchance because of the better weather, more generous public pensions, and more space. The BHPS, which tracks about 25,000 individuals since 1991, yields the green curve in the graph.
- In Germany, the story is slightly different. There is still a happiness peak at age 65, but it is preceded by a reduction in happiness during early adulthood, meaning that the peak is no higher than 7, with a sharp happiness drop after age 75, leaving individuals over the age of 90 with happiness levels around 5.8. Life simply only gets worse in Germany after the age of 18. Also, we found that there were severe data problems in Germany, with only quite miserable people in middle-age prepared to partake in the sample and respondents becoming markedly more honest (and miserable) as they answered the happiness questions year after year. The 20,000 individuals followed since 1984 reveal the dotted red line.
- We found that previous studies severely underestimated the degree to which miserable people in middle-age were over-represented in these datasets: happy people in middle age are busy and don’t have time to participate in lengthy questionnaires, leading previous studies to erroneously think there was a huge degree of unhappiness in middle-age. When you actually follow people over time, no such ‘middle-age blues pattern’ can be found, at least not in Australia or the UK and only to a mild degree in Germany.