Mark Craemer 1 Comment

With my birthday on the horizon, it is the time of year when I reflect on what I’ve done with my life so far and what I still want to do.

I try to take pride in what I have accomplished. I celebrate my good fortune at having a loving family, strong friendships, and continued good health. I also evaluate my overall well-being or happiness.

In an Economist magazine article back in December, I read that life may not be only a long, slow decline from vitality to incapacity. Instead, it is a U-Bend, which suggests that our happiness quotient actually declines until we are in our mid-forties whereupon it begins to rise again well into old age.

This is good news for those of us who have passed that point and are now growing older, wiser and, quite possibly, happier.

David Blanchflower, professor of economics at Dartmouth College, and Andrew Oswald, professor of economics at Warwick Business School, looked at data for 72 countries. They found that the nadir varies among countries with Ukrainians at their most miserable at 62, while the Swiss at 35. The great majority of countries find people at their unhappiest in their 40s and early 50s. The global average is 46 years of age.

In theory, when people start their adult lives, they are pretty cheerful on average. However, things often go south from youth to middle age. This could be explained by the fact that when we are in our mid-forties we are very often dealing with many stressors, including demanding careers, teenagers in the home, and aging parents.

Some characteristics determine our happiness more than others. For instance, those who are married are often more happy, but those with children in the home are less happy than those without. Education makes people happy because this often enables them to make more money. And, in general, richer people are happier than poorer people.

The growing happiness that follows middle-aged misery is not the result of external circumstances, however, but internal changes.

Older people have fewer arguments and find better solutions to conflict. They are better at controlling their emotions and accepting misfortune. They are also less likely to get angry. In a study where subjects were asked to listen to recordings of people supposedly saying disparaging things about them, older and younger people were similarly saddened, but older people got less angry and were less inclined to pass judgment.

Older people also know they are closer to death and they grow better at living in the present, argues Laura Carstensen, professor of psychology at Stanford University. They come to focus on things that matter now like feelings and less on long-term goals.

Neurotic people who are prone to guilt, anger and anxiety tend to be less happy. And studies have found that neuroticism is a stable personality trait and a good predictor of levels of happiness. Neurotic people also are likely to have low emotional intelligence, which makes it hard to develop healthy relationships, and that can make them unhappy.

Extroverted people, on the other hand, appear to be happier. People who thrive by working in teams, for example, are happier than those who would rather work independently.

Oswald and two colleagues, Eugenio Proto and Daniel Sgroi, cheered up a bunch of volunteers by showing them a funny film. Then he had them perform a series of mental tests and compared their performance to groups that had seen a neutral film or no film at all. Those who had seen the funny film performed 12% better.

Should we conclude that happier employees are more productive employees? Would a group of extraverts make for a stronger team than a group of introverts? I don’t think there is any conclusive evidence for these conclusions at this point.

There are many things we can do to raise our happiness. These include strengthening important relationships, maintaining good health through diet and exercise, managing our stress level, and making time for things that bring us joy. And it’s nice to know that an important benefit of the aging process is that it may also raise our level of happiness.

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