The Happiness Smile
I have been thinking a bit recently about life in two halves. You can define the two halves in a few different ways, but from a money standpoint they are called accumulation and decumulation. That is, we spend the first half of our life in our career, sometimes being all-consumed by it, in the pursuit of money and the accumulation of things. Then at some point, we move into the second half, which is where we start to live off what we have accumulated…we decumulate. Around that time of decumulation can come some changes in mindset. For many it’s a deeper period of life, where one starts to seek more meaning and purpose and dare I say it…happiness. The science behind this is really interesting. I have recently become familiar with something called the happiness smile, which is shown below:
The Economist magazine called it ‘the U-bend of life’:
“When people start out on adult life, they are, on average, pretty cheerful. Things go downhill from youth to middle age until they reach a nadir commonly known as the mid-life crisis. So far, so familiar. The surprising part happens after that. Although as people move towards old age they lose things they treasure—vitality, mental sharpness and looks—they also gain what people spend their lives pursuing: happiness.”
Economists and governments have started to pick-up on this as they realise that the traditional measure of a country’s progress – GDP (gross domestic product) – doesn’t necessarily encompass how people actually live and feel. Bhutan was the first country to start tracking the happiness of its citizens via the Gross National Happiness index. In the UK, the ONS (Office of National Statistics) has recently caught-on and started tracking data on well-being.
This happiness smile, or U-bend, appears all over the world. Although it doesn’t happen to every individual it is an undercurrent that seems quite hard to escape! The nadir varies among countries but people are unhappiest in their 40s and early 50s, with the average ‘unhappiest’ age being 46. Researchers have controlled for cash, employment status and children (studies have shown that people with no children are happier – that’s a whole other story), but the U-bend is still there. The conclusion is that our happiness levels increase from middle-age as a result of internal changes, and not external circumstances. It’s human nature. Some studies have even shown the same U-curve in primates suggesting it’s deeply ingrained in our biology.
This more I think about it the more it seems to make some sense to me. We spend our 30s and 40s worrying about what other people think, competing with colleagues, working too hard, stressing about money, having sleepless nights with young children. We are in the race. Then at some point in our late 40s and 50s, we start to lose people close to us. Perhaps a good friend dies, or a parent. Our kids grow-up. Our perspective starts to change. We realise that life is short, and we start to make our time matter. We get better at living in the present. We make peace with who we are and what we have achieved. We are wiser.
Scott Galloway (a well-known business school professor) words it well:
"The curve of happiness is the shape of a smile. Youth is replete with beer, college, and making out. We then graduate to job stress trying to forge our career, and someone we love gets sick and dies. In our thirties and forties we realize we won’t be a senator or have a fragrance named after us. And then something happens — our satisfaction and happiness turns upwards as we age and realize we have so much to be grateful for."
I actually find this research really heartening. Many of the people I help professionally are in their 40s or 50s and often there is a great fear of the second half of life. People don’t want to get old. But as Jonathan Rauch, the author of the book ‘The Happiness Curve’ writes, the research shows that so much emotional reward lies ahead in life. Maybe we just need to get better at embracing it.
“Not every thing that can be counted counts,
and not everything that counts can be counted.”