According to research in behavioral economics and social sciences, our well-being follows a U-shape. Longitudinal studies have found that when we’re young, we are content with life, but gradually this decreases until we hit our 40s (the mid-life crisis is real). After this so-called nadir of happiness, we start to change course, becoming more content from our 60s onwards.
A new survey from YouGov reinforces this. Over 1,000 respondents in the UK were asked if they preferred a low stress, low achievement lifestyle or a high stress, high achievement lifestyle. Overall, half of Brits opted for the low stress option, and 25% the high stress option (the remainder did not know).
The only age group in which a majority of respondents chose the latter was the 18-24 bracket—after which point the attitude shifted, and more people favored the opposite lifestyle.
Across the pond, it’s a fairly consistent picture. YouGov asked a similarly sized US sample the same question, and observed the same shift around age 30:
To explain these age patterns, some researchers point to regret over unmet expectations, which manifests in middle age before becoming less acute. The preference among YouGov’s younger respondents might come down to how we predict our happiness levels over time, which, according to research by Hannes Schwandt from the Department of Economics at the University of Zurich, we tend to forecast erroneously in our younger years.
“When we’re young, we tend to choose things that we ‘think’ will make us happy in the future, but which in reality they do not,” explains Nattavudh Powdthavee, a Professor of Behavioural Science at Warwick Business School.
Our level of optimism is also at its highest when we’re young, he says, which might explain the high levels of life satisfaction. It also helps us to handle stress, according to Schwandt.
Don’t lose your optimism—but calibrate your expectations
If we know a shift in our happiness is coming, how we should live our lives? Powdthavee recommends we adjust our expectations as we approach our forties, without losing a positive outlook.
“I don’t think I would advise people in their 20s to completely forsake their current preferences for high stress/high achievement, but to be aware of their inability to predict how much happiness this will bring them in later life.”
And as for those in their 40s? “I think they probably know better already that they were like the young ones too in terms of having these kind of preferences,” he adds.
Accept and let go
In older age, says Schwandt, people come to terms with their life and feel less regret about the past. High achievements take on less importance than they did in earlier years.
“What old age benefits from is precisely this idea that you kind of let it go.” Letting go and not feeling any stress at age 20, however, might have its downsides if it means we’re not trying our best to invest in our future.
He says we should “not feel miserable” if at some point opportunities to invest our stress and energies become more limited as we age. Knowing others are experiencing the same curve can help you come to terms with it. “In mid-life, if you have a feeling that there are not many more things to achieve for you then you should know you’re not alone.”
There are limits to the survey. Tim Harford, an author and columnist for the Financial Times, adds that without a historical comparison, it’s hard to draw firm conclusions. He points to the British Labour Force survey, which asks more specific questions (for example, if participants have had trouble sleeping or suffer from anxiety) to get a broader picture. “They’re boring questions, but once you put them together over the years you start to understand what’s going on,” he says.
YouGov told Quartz its question was phrased “in a way to see how people weigh competing values.” Yet, what is exactly meant by achievement? “High life satisfaction or high achievement implies that this kind of achievement is a) unpleasant or b) doesn’t feed into your happiness,” says Schwandt. “Are children an achievement? Probably, but maybe that’s not how people understood this question. The age pattern would look different if the achievement was about children and [stress] for their well-being, rather than low stress and bad outcomes for children.”
If our happiness does indeed follow this curve, the best we can do is to ride the wave.