Volumes of academic research measure the determinants of individual economic well-being—wages, income, and wealth. That is because money is supposed to buy not only necessities but also happiness, in the form of iPhones and TiVos.
Except that the relationship between money and happiness turns out to be complex. People with higher incomes today report higher levels of happiness than their poorer contemporaries. At the same time, people today are far richer than earlier generations, but they're not happier than those who came before them. In light of such wrinkles, a growing cadre of economists has cut out the money middleman and moved to studying happiness directly. The latest installment in this genre is a new study by economists David Blanchflower of Dartmouth and Andrew Oswald of Warwick. They document how happiness evolves as people age. While income and wealth tend to rise steadily over the life cycle, peaking around retirement, happiness follows a U-shaped age pattern.
The authors' data come from large-scale surveys. The General Social Survey asks Americans to rate their happiness level on a three-point scale, with "very happy" a three, "pretty happy" a two, and "not too happy" a one. The average happiness score in the United States is 2.2. The data, covering people older than 16, come from the years 1974 through 2004 and include about 20,000 men and 25,000 women. Across the Atlantic, the Eurobarometer offers a similar four-point scale (very satisfied, fairly satisfied, not very satisfied, not at all satisfied). The average happiness score in Europe is three. The data include about 400,000 men and women in 11 European countries, from 1975 to 1998.
Analyzing data from these surveys, Blanchflower and Oswald found that for both men and women in the United States and throughout Europe, happiness starts off relatively high in early adulthood, then falls, bottoming out on average around age 45, and then rises after that year and on into old age.
In this study (as in others), people are happier than their poorer counterparts if they have more income. How does the effect of income on happiness compare with the age effect? In the United States, the steady decline in happiness from age 16 to age 45 has an effect that's larger than a 50 percent reduction in income—that is, happiness varies more as people get older than it does if you compare significantly richer people to poorer ones. And, equivalently, the 15-year upswing in happiness that follows age 45 is stronger than the upswing that tracks doubling of income. For Europeans, the age-based happiness rise that's equivalent to the effect of doubling income occurs between ages 35 and 70.
The U-shaped happiness pattern is not a completely new finding. But past researchers couldn't tell whether 55-year-olds were happier than 45-year-olds in a given year because they'd aged or because they were born to a sunnier generation. This study gets around this problem by combining data on people of different ages at different points in time over a quarter-century. The authors can compare not only 55- and 45-year-olds today, but also 55-year-olds today to people who were 45 a decade ago. And when they account for when people were born, the U-shaped happiness pattern remains.
The authors also find that over the last century, Americans, both men and women, have gotten steadily—and hugely—less happy. The difference in happiness of men between men of my generation, born in the 1960s, and my father's generation, born in the 1920s, is the same as the effect of a tenfold difference in income. In other words, if my father had little money compared to his contemporaries and I have lots of money compared to mine, I can still expect to be less happy. Here, curiously, the European pattern diverges. Happiness falls for the birth years from 1900 to about 1950, and generations born on the continent since World War II have gotten successively happier.
So, why does happiness start strong, dip with middle age, and then revive among the elderly? The authors—they're economists, after all—can do little more than speculate about the causes of the midlife happiness crisis. They propose that people come to understand their strengths and weaknesses and "in mid-life quell the infeasible aspirations of their youth." Whatever the cause, even if middle-aged Americans are less happy than their parents and grandparents, they have something to look forward to. Besides senility and death, that is.