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?

Are you happy? Are you 42?

The Guardian has a good article on the up-and-coming science of Happy Studies… or rather the study of happiness. It’s easy to make fun of, but it sure seems like important work. The sub-head for the article sums up the modern happiness paradox well:

Most of us are healthier and wealthier than ever before, yet an increasing number claim to be unhappy. Is it the stress of modern life? Or are we simply losing our capacity for joy?

One way, it develops, to optimize your happiness is to avoid dangerous questions like “How close are you to your optimal happiness levels?” In other words, just enjoy your drab, wretched life. It’s really for the best that you not see the blazing sunshine of bliss that daily drenches your well-adjusted friends and neighbors. Or as the article quotes John Stuart Mill, “Ask yourself whether you are happy, and you cease to be so.” Most intriguingly of all, one researcher finds a happiness trough at age 42 (I prefer to think of it as a misery peak, but hey, I’ve always been an optimist).

“People start out in life pretty certain that they’re going to end up like David Beckham or win the Nobel Prize,” says Oswald. “Then, after a few years, they discover it’s quite tough out there – not just in their careers, but in life. Unsurprisingly, their happiness drops.” The good news is that the downer doesn’t last. According to Oswald, if you trace the trajectory of most peoples’ happiness over time it resembles a J-curve. People typically record high satisfaction levels in their early twenties. These then fall steadily towards middle age, before troughing at around 42. Most of us then grow steadily happier as we get older, with those in their sixties expressing the highest satisfaction levels of all – as long, that is, as they stay healthy.

The moral of the story is, when you go through your mid-life crisis, don’t wreck your health. Your happier, older self will thank you.