Here’s proof that you get wiser and hap­pier af­ter age 50

The Washington Post Sunday - - BOOK WORLD - RE­VIEW BY PAMELA NEWKIRK Pamela Newkirk is a pro­fes­sor of jour­nal­ism at New York Univer­sity and the au­thor of “Spec­ta­cle: The As­ton­ish­ing Life of Ota Benga.”

Thanks to mod­ern medicine, the lifespan of the av­er­age adult has in­creased by more than a decade and will prob­a­bly ex­pand even more in years to come. If that isn’t enough of a sil­ver lin­ing, jour­nal­ist Jonathan Rauch offers even more good news about ag­ing in his book “The Hap­pi­ness Curve: Why Life Gets Bet­ter Af­ter 50.”

The op­ti­mistic, breezy ti­tle could eas­ily be dis­missed as wish­ful think­ing. How­ever, Rauch’s rosy pro­jec­tion is based less on new-age op­ti­mism than a re­view of a series of multi-coun­try, big-data stud­ies on hap­pi­ness con­ducted over the past few decades. The find­ings by schol­ars from a range of dis­ci­plines con­sis­tently show that life sat­is­fac­tion is U-shaped, with con­tent­ment high in the 20s, plung­ing at mid-age and tak­ing a turn for the bet­ter af­ter 50.

The am­ple schol­ar­ship on the “hap­pi­ness curve” de­bunks many long-stand­ing be­liefs about ag­ing and hap­pi­ness and shows that con­trary to be­ing over the hill, peo­ple over 50 are gen­er­ally hap­pier than they were dur­ing their 30s and 40s.

For ex­am­ple, the Of­fice of Na­tional Sta­tis­tics in England sur­veyed more than 300,000 peo­ple of dif­fer­ent ages in 2014 and 2015 and asked, “Over­all, how sat­is­fied are you with your life nowa­days?” Like other stud­ies cited by Rauch, the re­sults showed that life sat­is­fac­tion was high be­tween 20 and 34 and hit its low­est point around 49 or 50, then be­gan to rise, peak­ing in the mid-60s.

Sim­i­larly, re­search on data sets from 37 coun­tries by David Blanch­flower, a Dart­mouth Col­lege economics pro­fes­sor, found the same U in re­sponse to the ques­tion “If you were to con­sider your life in gen­eral, how happy or un­happy would you say you are, on the whole.” In an­other data set of 305,000 peo­ple in Britain, the U bot­tomed at age 49, which is also when stress and anx­i­ety peaked.

In a pa­per Blanch­flower co-au­thored with Bri­tish col­league Andrew Oswald, they wrote: “We show that well­be­ing reaches its min­i­mum around the middle of life. The reg­u­lar­ity is in­trigu­ing. The U shape is sim­i­lar for males and fe­males, and for each side of the At­lantic Ocean.” Analysis of the Gallup World Poll of 99 per­cent of the world’s adult pop­u­la­tion be­tween 2010 and 2012 also showed that peo­ple got hap­pier over time.

In a study of the data of 1 mil­lion Bri­tons be­tween the ages of 16 and 70, schol­ars found that the prob­a­bil­ity of de­pres­sion peaked in the mid-40s. In yet an­other study of two states in the United States, the high­est prob­a­bil­ity of con­sum­ing an­tide­pres­sants oc­curred be­tween ages 45 and 49. So, con­trary to pop­u­lar per­cep­tions, de­pres­sion is less com­mon among the el­derly than the middle-aged.

And the U is not unique to hu­mans; it is also found in apes, ac­cord­ing to a 2012 study by Oswald; Alex Weis, a com­par­a­tive psy­chol­o­gist; and sev­eral col­lab­o­ra­tors. The study, “Ev­i­dence for a Midlife Cri­sis in Great Apes Con­sis­tent with the U-Shape in Hu­man Well­be­ing,” says the U “may lie partly in the bi­ol­ogy we share with closely related great apes.”

Not all of the re­search cited by Rauch is sur­pris­ing. Re­search on wis­dom, for ex­am­ple, sug­gests its cor­re­la­tion with age, and in the United States, peo­ple in the high­est in­come group were found to be almost twice as likely as peo­ple in the low­est group to de­scribe them­selves as “very happy.”

But given the vari­ables among peo­ple’s ex­pe­ri­ences, it is im­pos­si­ble to mean­ing­fully ap­ply the curve found in large data sets to an in­di­vid­ual. An un­happy 60-year-old who was more con­tent at 30 or 40 could find the con­clu­sions ir­rel­e­vant. The U-curve, Rauch cau­tions, “is not an in­evitabil­ity; it’s a ten­dency.” But it’s a ten­dency that drives the 218 pages of text, which be­come some­what re­dun­dant once the curve is sub­stan­tially es­tab­lished. Sim­i­larly, in­ter­views Rauch con­ducted, sprin­kled through­out the book, some­times de­tract from the far more com­pelling schol­ar­ship. Many of the in­ter­vie­wees are in­tro­duced by only a first name and oc­cu­pa­tion that serve to un­der­score their ob­scu­rity. At times Rauch chron­i­cles the tra­jec­tory of his own life, pre­sum­ably to show that it tracks with the book’s cen­tral premise.

“In my own for­ties,” he writes, “my life sat­is­fac­tion was low, and much lower than I thought it should be.” Like the other per­sonal sto­ries, the re­flec­tion seems im­ma­te­rial given the range of ex­pe­ri­ences that con­trib­ute to one’s per­sonal con­tent­ment at a given age. The util­ity of the anec­dotes is fur­ther un­der­mined by Rauch him­self, who writes that the hap­pi­ness curve “shows up more clearly and con­sis­tently af­ter fil­ter­ing out peo­ple’s life cir­cum­stances than be­fore.” For in­stance, while un­em­ploy­ment sub­stan­tially af­fects life sat­is­fac­tion, Blanch­flower and Oswald found that going from age 20 to 45 “de­creases life sat­is­fac­tion by about a third as much as be­com­ing un­em­ployed.” And the World Val­ues Sur­vey, which polls peo­ple in 150 coun­tries about their life sat­is­fac­tion, found that so­cial in­ter­ac­tion was among the fac­tors that most con­trib­uted to well­be­ing. Other stud­ies had sim­i­lar find­ings. “If re­quired to choose,” Rauch writes, “the ex­per­i­ments show, you would be bet­ter off with less health but more so­cial ties than the other way around.”

The strength of the book, then, is less the per­sonal anec­dotes than what ap­pears to be over­whelm­ing ev­i­dence of a hap­pi­ness curve af­ter 50 that could in­spire a so­ci­etal re­assess­ment of later-life plan­ning. “We are in the process of adding per­haps two decades to the most sat­is­fy­ing and pro-so­cial pe­riod of life,” Rauch writes. “Some so­ci­ol­o­gists call this new stage of life en­core adult­hood. What­ever you call it, it is a gift the likes of which mankind has never known be­fore.”

Rauch ar­gues that out­dated so­cial con­ven­tions and as­sump­tions need to be re­vised to cre­ate a “U-friendly en­vi­ron­ment,” one that re­flects these in­sights into the ag­ing process. “By telling them that their best years are be­hind them at age fifty, we make them gloomy about the fu­ture,” Rauch says. “In all of those ways, by telling the wrong story about adult de­vel­op­ment, we bait and set the midlife trap.”

In a youth-ob­sessed cul­ture, it may be dif­fi­cult to con­vince some that life gets bet­ter af­ter 50. But by sup­plant­ing dated cliches with com­pelling schol­ar­ship, Rauch offers a fresh and re­as­sur­ing vi­sion of ag­ing that su­per­sedes su­per­fi­cial fix­a­tions.

By Jonathan Rauch Thomas Dunne. 244 pp. $26.99

THE HAP­PI­NESS CURVE Why Life Gets Bet­ter Af­ter 50

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