Saturday, September 3, 2022

U-shape around middle age: Happiness initially increases after the age of 50, but commonly stagnates afterwards and eventually reverts at high age; this pattern does not emerge for all countries, and is not always observed for women

Does Happiness Increase in Old Age? Longitudinal Evidence from 20 European Countries. Christoph K. Becker & Stefan T. Trautmann. Journal of Happiness Studies, Sep 2 2022.

Abstract: Several studies indicate that happiness follows a U-shape over the life cycle: Happiness decreases after the teenage years until reaching its nadir in middle age. A similar number of studies views the U-shape critically, stating that it is the result of the wrong controls or the wrong model. In this paper, we study the upward-pointing branch of the U-shape, tracing the happiness of European citizens 50 and older over multiple waves. Consistent with a U-shape around middle age, we find that happiness initially increases after the age of 50, but commonly stagnates afterwards and eventually reverts at high age. This pattern is generally observed irrespective of the utilized happiness measure, control variables, estimation methods, and the consideration of selection effects due to mortality. However, the strength of this pattern depends on the utilized happiness measure, control variables, and on mortality effects. The general pattern does not emerge for all countries, and is not always observed for women.


Studies measuring happiness and well-being over the life cycle have found mixed results, and in particular the U-shape of happiness is a controversial finding. Consistent with a U-shape around middle age, we find that happiness increases after the age of 50, irrespective of the specification used. Furthermore, our results indicate that happiness tends to stagnate or even decrease at very high age. When conducting our analysis on country- or gender-specific subsamples, a more varied picture emerges. Where we find significant results in these subsamples, however, it is always consistent with a U-shape. These findings are also robust when accounting for differences due to mortality selection effects. While selection effects are indeed at work, with happier respondents being more likely to be alive at the time the next wave is elicited, CASP-12 is the only measure where the pattern is affected: selection makes the observed pattern more pronounced in this case. The result could potentially stem from the CASP-12 measuring control and agency, which decrease towards the end of one’s life (Oliver et al., 2021; Ribeiro et al., 2020; Rodríguez-Blázquez et al., 2020). This might also help to explain why we find lower turning points for CASP-12 and EURO-D in Table 4 in contrast to life satisfaction, when including additional controls. One reason why life satisfaction might continue to increase in high age is that older people might give up on aspiration and enjoy life more (Blanchflower & Oswald, 2004; Frey & Stutzer, 2010). CASP-12 and EURO-D, on the other hand, measure elements related to control and mental health, which might be more negatively affected by age. Different happiness measures might capture different aspects of life, highlighting the importance of looking at multiple measures at the same time.

Importantly, the observed age-happiness relation is consistently obtained using different approaches that have been used in both research that found and did not find the happiness dip in middle age. Additionally, the happiness-age relationship does not only hold for measures of subjective well-being (life satisfaction), but also for affective/eudemonic (CASP-12) and mental health measures (EURO-D). We are thus confident that our findings are meaningful for a substantial number of European countries.

Naturally, we can make no predictions about the trajectory of the happiness-age relation under the age of 50, as the SHARE data set only provides data for older Europeans. However, as other studies have indicated, there is support for the overall U-shape in various European countries (Blanchflower, 2021). We find that happiness indeed increases after middle age, compared to other studies finding a decrease after middle age (Easterlin, 2006; Mroczek & Spiro, 2005) or an overall decrease (Frijters & Beatton, 2012; Kassenboehmer & Haisken-DeNew, 2012). These differences could reflect regional differences, as Easterlin (2006) and Mroczek and Spiro (2005) use US data. Alternatively, methodological differences might drive these divergences. Kassenboehmer and Haisken-DeNew (2012) utilize respondents leaving the survey panel temporarily, to differentiate between age and years in the survey. Both should still be correlated, however. Frijters and Beatton’s (2012) main result is based on fixed effects regressions, which might ultimately not be reliable enough to deal with the age-period-cohort problem (Heckman & Robb Jr, 1985; Yang & Land, 2008). Mrozcek and Spiro’s (2005) use of a demeaned variable in their specification might similarly be problematic (McIntosh & Schlenker, 2006).

Our results are in line with previous studies indicating an increase of happiness after 50 (Morgan & O’Connor, 2017) or an upward profile for affective measures (Mroczek & Kolarz, 1998). However, similar to other studies, our results also provide evidence that happiness, depending on the measure used, stagnates or even decreases later in life (Blanchflower, 2021; Blanchflower & Graham, 2020; Gwozdz & Sousa-Poza, 2010). Our results support the view that people go through a period of relatively low happiness (relative to happiness at older age) around the midpoint of their life. For policy makers, it is important to further explore why this dip occurs and how it can be alleviated.

Going forward, it is important to highlight that proving or disproving the U-shape of happiness, or as in our case components of it, should not be a goal in itself. While knowing the average path happiness takes over the course of a human life is important, even more so is understanding which life events affect the emerging trajectory (Bjørnskov et al., 2008; Galambos et al., 20202021; Lachman, 2015; Morgan & O’Connor, 2020). Past research has shown the happiness effects of marriage (Grover & Helliwell, 2019), parenthood (Nelson et al., 2013), social networks in general (Becker et al., 2019), income (Easterlin, 1974), social support (Siedlecki et al., 2014), permanent employment (Piper, 2021), the quality of formal institutions (Bjørnskov et al., 2010), giving up on aspirations (Schwandt, 2016), and health (Bussière et al., 2021; Gwozdz & Sousa-Poza, 2010; Oliver et al., 2021). Mapping the evolution of these events over the life course may help to better understand the emergence of the U-shape of happiness.