Birthdays and happiness

My birthday was last weekend. I turned 42. In addition to being the answer to life, the universe, and everything, 42 also happens to mark a lifetime low point in happiness as reported by various happy researchers … I’m sorry, various happiness researchers. It’s possible to take this news badly, but I look at it like this: I’ve got years of rising happiness levels to look forward to. According to the theory, 42 is about the time you realize that you aren’t actually going to win the Nobel Prize, and so you might as well start enjoying what you’ve got. Please. The rest of us have known for years that you weren’t going to win that prize.

I find happiness studies fascinating. From an episode of the Quirks & Quarks radio program, I learned that there is almost no relationship between things people predict will make them happy and things that measurably lift their levels of reported happiness. Almost none! How did that evolve? Similarly, people grossly overestimate the impact of bad things (job loss, accidents, health crises) on day-to-day happiness levels. Back on the subject of age, older people generally overstate how happy they were in their youth and younger people overstate how miserable they will be as they age. Which all stands to reason, since if Hollywood has succeeded in teaching us anything, it’s that youth = happiness and that old people don’t deserve to appear in movies.

The perfect age

I’m curious to hear your answer to this: if youth equals happiness, then, pop-culturally speaking, what is our “perfect” age? Not the age that you happen to like, but rather that optimal cusp that glossy magazines push at us every day. It is the age that children yearn for and seniors fondly recall. Presumably it is post-drinking age, post-sexual maturity, pre-wrinkle, and pre-hair loss. It is a mysterious still point on a sociological map. I think it’s 24, but it may be 25. What do you think?

7 thoughts on “Birthdays and happiness”

  1. I think these days, the fixed point may actually be a little older, what with all the “<bigger number> is the new <smaller number>” rhetoric flying around out there. The ideal age may be more like 29 now.

    Now, on a different tack, when I saw that picture, the first thing it brought to my mind was a survey where they asked people of various ages what age they would like to be (I forget whether there was an explicit “if they were to be that age forever”, or for a long time, or just for now, or whatever.)

    The fixed point there was somewhere around 38, if I recall correctly. Young kids wanted to be older kids, teenagers wanted to be in their early twenties, the 20-29 set wanted to be about 31, the 30-39 set wanted to be 37, the 40-49 set wanted to be 41, etc. Averaging it all out, people wanted to be closer to 38 than they are now.

  2. I think I have to agree with Ned…24 or 25 tops. It’s still the carefree age where you might not really have a job/career yet, you still think you know everything, are immortal and can’t fail. The World is still a new place, despite knowing everything, you haven’t seen everything. No kids(maybe), no career(maybe)..As John Lennon said, “Oh that magic feeling, nowhere to go”

    Once when I was studying in Germany, I met a, what I thought of at the time, middle-aged man(He was probably 35). He was a blue-collar type, who, upon seeing my backpack, launched into a monologue about how great my life must be, no job, no mortgage payment, job, bills or wife. To him I was living the perfect life, and life only got worse as you aged and collected more responsibility and things. Maybe he was right….I just appreciated the free beer he gave me.

  3. Ned –
    Happy Birthday! Thought I’d let you know that this made me laugh out loud:

    “42 is about the time you realize that you aren’t actually going to win the Nobel Prize, and so you might as well start enjoying what you’ve got. Please. The rest of us have known for years that you weren’t going to win that prize.”

    I have most of ’07 to get through before I hit 42 myself…as for that “magical” age, I’d put it at 25.
    – Alan

  4. Hmm, perhaps there are two ages, especially now that we’re living so much long. So that you peak at 24, bottom out at 42, peak again at 60 and hit bottom again (and finally) at 88. Consider the German novelist Theodor Fontane: no frustrated novelist, he simply began writing and publishing after his career in the post office ended, finally fulfilling the unbloomed promise of youth with six or seven major novels after 65 and a place in German literary history. I’m sure he hated his 40s, thinking his moment had passed, when in fact he flowered in youth and then again

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