When will I be happiest in my life? (Spoiler: not at 14)
A team of psychologists has pored over hundreds of thousands of data points in an attempt to solve the mystery of when human beings are at their happiest.
Are you happy? And how old are you? Those two questions bundled together are the crux of a study conducted by a group of psychologists from Germany and Switzerland. DW’s Science Unscriptedpodcasters Conor Dillon and Gabriel Borrud spoke with lead author Susanne Bücker to get a sense of when humans – if you ask them in a survey at various points throughout their entire time on Earth - are most satisfied. (Also read: 6 ways to stay happy with an unhappy partner)
DW: Susanne, you looked at data from 460,000 people to find out what phase of life is best for human beings when it comes to subjective happiness. What did you find?
Susanne Bücker: We found that people seem to struggle during adolescence. Younger people from age nine to 14, for example, decrease in their life satisfaction. From age 14 onwards, however, and extending until 70 years of age, people increase in their subjective well-being and life satisfaction, slightly but steadily. And from 70 years until the end of life, life satisfaction decreases again.
And when you looked at those nine-year-olds, their happiness was decreasing – really?
Exactly. Their happiness decreased or their life satisfaction decreased, which is probably because this is a very busy time. Becoming an adolescent and being in puberty is a very intense time for young people. And there are also a lot of biological changes going on that affect their happiness - or how they feel about themselves.
So, we might be talking about something as simple as acne. And then you've got these new body odors coming out. You're not very happy with that. But your data suggests that from age 14 all the way to 70, life satisfaction remains either stable or increases slightly increases?
Yes, it's not a huge increase, but it stabilizes. And possibly because people also stabilize their romantic relationships during that time, or their financial situation stabilizes at least on average from young to middle adulthood. Many other mostly positive life events characterize this period. For example, starting your first job, but also moving in with your romantic partner or becoming a parent. So that's also something that can be negative, of course, but overall, people seem to be satisfied with their lives during that period.
And you found no swoons in the 20s or in the 30s or the 40s that would reflect anything along the lines of a midlife crisis?
No, we didn't, which was surprising, because there is other research suggesting such a midlife crisis. The problem with that research is that it's mainly cross-sectional, which means participants are asked only once about how happy they are. Significant data is accumulated from different people at different ages, and you see a U-shaped curve in middle ages, but it's not a longitudinal trajectory in terms of following the exact same people across multiple years. And this is what we have done in our study. And the longitudinal analysis shows that the U-shape is not the trajectory of subjective well-being.
I'm just having a tough time imagining that your data can be true. And this is infused by my own personal life experience. I’m thinking about the relatively hard early years of your career when you also must raise children. I am not going to say those were dark times, but those days were hard. You're waking up multiple times throughout the night. You're stressed, but you're trying to do good work. I would have thought my life satisfaction was down at that point. But your data suggests that somebody like me, if I were being surveyed throughout that time, my life satisfaction would have been the same as in my 20s or my 40s.
You are mentioning a very important point. One other line of my research studies major life events and changes in subjective well-being, but also feelings of loneliness surrounding such major life events like becoming a parent or marrying or getting divorced. And what people typically think is that these major life events must be very impactful for their subjective well-being or for their feelings of loneliness. But then when we look at such longitudinal data and - as you just said - ask people every year or every month how they feel, then they report a rather stable level of subjective well-being.
In retrospect, they still think that they must have changed during that time, that it must have been horrible for them. This is not reflected in how they fill out surveys, however. Maybe because society expects us to be happy when becoming a parent, for example. People don't want to admit that they might have some downsides in their lives during that period. And these retrospective assessments of how we feel might differ from what we see when we ask people directly after the major life event, or even multiple times surrounding such life events.
This interview is an excerpt from our podcast Science unscripted. If you want to know more about subjective well-being at different ages (and why German people say that your 40s are better than your 30s), you can listen to this episode of Science Unscripted. Or you can subscribe to the podcast here.
The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.