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This Is the Age When We Are Most Unhappy

A new study investigated when people experience particularly tough times.

Almost no one is happy all the time, and unhappiness is a common experience for most people. But looking at anecdotal evidence, age seems to be a factor that has a strong effect on unhappiness.

While most of us perceive young kids as rather happy, mid-adulthood seems to be an age that is particularly difficult, as suggested by the term “midlife crisis.” While the midlife crisis is an established phenomenon, more recently the term “quarter-life crisis” has been coined to describe an increase in unhappiness that some people experience in their 20s.

However, whether these age-related increases in unhappiness are just individual reports or a general phenomenon that can be found in most people across different countries has been unclear so far. A new study, published in the Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization (Blanchflower, 2020), systematically investigated this question in a large sample of people.

In the study, the author analyzed data from more than 14 million participants from over 40 different countries. Specifically, participants had answered questions regarding the following thematic groups related to unhappiness:

  1. Mental Health. This category included questions about having many "not good" mental health days, suffering from depression, being worried, feeling sad, experiencing stress, being under strain, having bad nerves, suffering from phobias and panics, being anxious, being downhearted, and being unhappy.
  2. Social Interactions and Feelings. This category included questions about feeling left out of society, not being able to overcome difficulties, losing confidence in yourself, thinking of yourself as a worthless person, feeling like a failure, being lonely, and feeling tense.
  3. Physical Well-Being. This category included questions about experiencing pain and not being able to sleep well.
  4. National Well-Being. This category was focused on whether or not the situation in the respondent's country was getting worse at the moment when the study was conducted.

The results were quite clear:

Across Europe and the United States, unhappiness reached its peak in the late forties, specifically at the age of 49 years. In general, unhappiness followed a hill-shaped curve across the lifespan. Thus, young children start out with rather low unhappiness which increases until the age of 49 years. Subsequently, unhappiness decreases again and older adults are on average less unhappy than people around the age of 49. Therefore, the results of the study strongly support the existence of the “midlife crisis” as a general phenomenon across different countries. In contrast, there was no strong scientific support for the existence of a “quarter-life crisis.”

So why does unhappiness decrease again after the age of 49 years?

The author of the study gave three different suggestions. First, people might give up on fulfilling impossible dreams after the age of 49 and settle for realistic goals, which might be helpful in reducing unhappiness. Second, less unhappy people might live longer, which leads to a decrease in unhappiness in old age. Third, it might be a contrast effect, in which older people see how others in their generation get sick and die and feel more grateful for still being in good health, reducing unhappiness.

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David G. Blanchflower (2020). Unhappiness and age. Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, 176, 461-488.

More from Sebastian Ocklenburg, Ph.D.
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