by Fonya Lord Helm, Ph.D., ABPP

Happiness U Curve
Several years ago, I had the experience having a paper of mine discussed by a distinguished colleague, Dr. Hedda Bolgar, who was in her late nineties and still practicing psychology.  She discussed my paper very well, giving her own observations as well as comments on my ideas.  I was impressed.  About a year later, a friend who knew her very well, and was invited to her 100th birthday, told me about a question she was asked at her party.   “As you look back over your life, when were you the happiest?”  She thought for a moment and said, “How about now?”

The U-curve of happiness shows that happiness is high around twenty years of ago and gradually decreases to a low point in the mid-forties, and when the low point is especially low, it is called a “mid-life crisis.”  Not everyone has a full-blown mid-life crisis, but many people report being quite unhappy in their mid-forties.

Blanchflower and Oswald, two labor economists, found the U-curve with the lowest point on average at age 46, in 55 of the 80 countries in which they surveyed people on their perception of their happiness.  Graham and Nikolova asked people in 149 countries to rate their happiness and found the U-curve in 80 countries.  Happiness bottomed out between 39 and 57.

A good discussion of the U-curve appears in an article on the Happiness U Curve in the December, 2014 issue of “The Atlantic Monthly” by Jonathan Rauch, and was titled “The Real Roots of the Midlife Crisis.”  Rauch has interviewed a number of people, and has drawn heavily on research and on his own experience.

Fortunately, after the age of 50, most people start to get happier and the growth in happiness shows up in a number of studies.   This effect also occurs in people who have been extremely unhappy, too—even people who have coped with severe mental illness.

Reports by zookeepers, researchers and other animal caretakers reporting on 500 captive primates in Australia, Canada, Japan, Singapore and the United States also found a U-curve in chimpanzees and orangutans.  Their happiness bottomed out in the same place in their life cycle.  These observations suggest that one or more biological variables seem to be active here.

My hope is that by knowing about the U-curve, people who are experiencing low mood during middle age will realize that it is something that happens to many people and that probably is biological.  This knowledge may help them understand that it is not their circumstances or the people in their life and help them find ways of coping with it.   They may find ways to take a thoughtful approach, like psychotherapy, meditation, reading books about the inner life, rather than making impulsive decisions that can leading to disruptions in their lives.


How Psychotherapy Can Help

In psychotherapy, people can integrate their new memories and realizations that tend to come up more in middle age by discussing them with a therapist.  Long-term intensive psychotherapy causes people to make many connections and helps integrate past experiences into the present life in the context of a new stable relationship.  Mood disorders become much easier to manage, even when they do not go away completely.

Studies provide evidence that after mid-life, people become more and more satisfied with their lives, from their early fifties through their seventies and beyond.   I myself have seen people grow more connected to and empathic with other people well into their eighties, and this growth correlated with greater satisfaction and happiness, as far as I could tell.

Jeste, a researcher in geriatric psychiatry, is studying wisdom in older people, and he finds that the idea of wisdom is universal and pro-social.  He is looking for a biological indicator in the brain.  Some German neuroscientists have found that older people do not report as much regret as younger people, and Wethington, a Cornell professor, finds that younger people react more strongly to negative stimuli, while older people are calmer and have more acceptance and understanding.