Provocative new research challenges the belief that people experience happiness on a U-shaped curve over the life course with the low point becoming known as the “mid-life crisis.”
For more than 50 years, a number of studies have claimed that happiness declines for most from the early 20s to middle age (40 to 60).
Today, the “mid-life crisis” is a generally accepted phenomenon, a theme for songs and sitcoms and the subject of advertising propaganda the world over. New research, however, suggests the concept is a myth as researchers used data drawn from two longitudinal studies by University of Alberta researchers Nancy Galambos, Harvey Krahn, Matt Johnson, and their team to prove the fallacy.
Their paper appears in the journal Developmental Psychology.
Contrary to previous cross-sectional studies of life-span happiness, this new longitudinal data suggests happiness does not stall in midlife, but instead is part of an upward trajectory beginning in our teens and early twenties. And, according to Galambos and Krahn, this study is far more reliable than the research that came before it.
“I’m not trashing cross-sectional research, but if you want to see how people change as they get older, you have to measure the same individuals over time,” sociologist Krahn said.
The team followed two cohorts — one of Canadian high school seniors from ages 18-43 and the other a group of university seniors from ages 23-37. Both showed happiness increased into the 30s, with a slight downturn by age 43 in the high school sample.
After accounting for variations in participants’ lives, such as changes in marital status and employment, both samples still demonstrated a general rise in happiness after high school and university.
Psychology professor Nancy Galambos — first author on the study — says the finding is crucial information, because happiness is important. It’s associated with life span and overall well-being.
“We want people to be happier so that they have an easier life trajectory,” she said. “And also they cost less to the health system, and society.”
In the study, researchers found that:
- people are happier in their early 40s (midlife) than they were at age 18;
- happiness rises fastest between age 18 and well into the 30s;
- happiness is higher in years when people are married and in better physical health, and lower in years when people are unemployed;
- the rise in happiness between the teens and early 40s is not consistent with a midlife crisis;
- the rise in happiness to midlife refutes the purported “u-bend” in happiness, which assumes that happiness declines between the teens and the 40s.