Help! I’m heading into the U-shaped happiness abyss
The writer is the author of Lift As You Climb: Women and the Art of Ambition
Forty seven was not the best age for Judy Garland, Frida Kahlo, Edith Piaf, Jack Kerouac, Joseph Goebbels or Rasputin. They all died three years shy of their 50th birthdays. But is it really the unhappiest age? Or just a random point in life, as likely to be miserable or joyous as any other?
According to a new study from the US’s National Bureau of Economic Research, 47.2 is the unhappiest age you can be. This is worrying for me personally as I only have a few months to prepare for the abyss. The work is the latest publication from David Blanchflower, Dartmouth economics professor and former Bank of England policymaker, who first postulated that personal happiness follows as “U-shaped” curve and has now determined that the low point comes at 47.2 years.
He studied the relationship between wellbeing and age across 132 countries. His investigations used different measures of unhappiness; despair, anxiety, sadness, depression, bad nerves, phobias and panic, being downhearted, having restless sleep, loss of confidence, tension, feeling left out, “thinking of yourself as a worthless person” and — a personal favourite — “strain.” A word which is surely a mysteriously useful catch-all to describe both the physical and mental slump of midlife.
On the downward slide to 47.2 you are apparently weighed down by increasing pressures and irritations: bodily decline without the stoical acceptance of its inevitability, the burdens of children, relationships and employment (or lack of these things), the anxiety of middle age and the onset of sleep problems. The good news? Once you pass 47.2 you head back up the U-shaped curve towards the sunlit uplands of your fifties, sixties and beyond. At that point you are basically long past caring about anything at all and the whole world can go swivel because you’re going to be dead soon and you might as well go out with a smile on your face.
As I approach this pit of Peak Misery or, rather, Trough Misery, with only blissful senility to look forward on the positive incline, I have mixed feelings. On the one hand, I dislike people who dismiss serious, long-term academic studies conducted by well-meaning experts over many years. This kind of data is useful in determining economic outcomes in different countries and in monitoring patterns of behaviour. It’s the kind of study that uncovers useful information about the psychology of happiness, like that really annoying one about the diminishing returns of earning more money and how once you’re earning $75,000 you can’t get any happier.
On the other hand, whilst this might be useful data for policymakers, it’s not much use on an individual level. What if you’re 47.2 and you just got a huge redundancy package from a job you hate? What if you just met the love of your life, won the lottery or finally cracked the headstand in yoga? Or maybe all three of these things simultaneously? What if you’re pregnant for the first time with a baby you never dreamt you’d have? What if all your adult children have left home, found gainful employment — and their own property — and you’ve just had a sex swing installed in one of your many spare rooms? OK, that’s ridiculous. No one’s adult children will ever have their own property. The U-shaped curve of doom is not useful for any of these people. They are too busy celebrating.
So what do we take from this? It’s perhaps worthy and pious to say it. But anytime we are tempted to bemoan the passing of the years, we have to consider the quote attributed to Maurice Chevalier about old age being “better than the alternative”. We all have friends who didn’t make it as far as Garland or Kahlo. We owe it to them to applaud longitudinal economic surveys in the abstract, whilst sticking two fingers up to the results in the here and now. I’m off to build a sex swing.