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Study: Happiness comes for many after they’re finally over the hill; Gonzaga professor explains practical reasons why worries lessen with age

If you’re blowing out 40 candles this year, know that things are going to get better. That’s according to a new study by the National Bureau of Economic Research that suggests the relationship between happiness and age can be expressed by a U-shaped curve, with the least-happy period falling during midlife.

Clarence “Bud” Barnes, Gonzaga University economics professor, said people tend at this point in their lives to encounter disruptive issues, such as family separations, loss of a loved one or a pet, and employment issues, which can cause prolonged periods of sadness. Though not involved with this particular study, he’s talked about age-trend research with his students.

“What I try to impress upon my students is that the problems that you encounter today, and the disappointments that you encounter today, and the sadness that you will on a normal basis encounter will never be any smaller,” Barnes said. “Those issues only get bigger and bigger as you get older.”

For the U.S., the study analyzed data from 1978-2018 from the General Social Survey through the National Opinion Research Center, as well as the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System data through the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which has data available from 2005 to 2010.

The GSS data focuses on the answer to the question, “Taken all together, how would you say things are these days? Would you say that you are very happy, pretty happy, or not too happy?” Similarly, the BRFSS question used was, “In general, how satisfied are you with your life?”

After controlling for education, marital status and labor-force status, a U-shape emerged, with the behavioral system survey pointing to 43 years old being the low point, whereas the general survey pegged 40 years old.

The study didn’t just look at the U.S. Across 257 country estimates, the age was pinpointed to 48, and selecting for only “advanced” countries, the age was 47.

Joseph Judd, a therapist with Advanced Behavioral Health, said he has many patients come in seeking help for a midlife crisis, though they don’t immediately identify their situation this way. Most people he sees who are dealing with this have been working hard for 15, 20 years, and then start to realize – through physical changes, death of family members or friends, or other events – they are getting older.

“It kind of sets off a little bit of a crisis for some people because they start to think, ‘Have I accomplished everything I wanted to in life?’ ” Judd said. “They look around at their friends, and maybe their friends are more successful. Maybe they have a relationship, such as a marriage, that’s not where they hoped it would be. And so it’s just kind of a general sense of overwhelm about discontent in their life.”

Judd said when he sees a new patient, he does an evaluation to rule out a more clinical diagnosis. But he said those going through a “midlife transition” often have signs of depression and anxiety. He said many people have spent so much time working that they have forgotten what they enjoy doing and it causes a loss of identity.

“Usually, once you’ve got some goals, once you’ve got something to focus on, and you see that you’ve got the skills to do it, you recognize your values and the things that are important to you, it becomes a little easier,” Judd said. “There’s a little hope there and then bit by bit, we’re able to kind of help them get redirected and get empowered.”

Philip Watkins, an Eastern Washington University professor, said he is skeptical of a study that finds a correlation between age and happiness. His primary focus and area of research throughout his career has been positive psychology and gratitude, and he authored “Gratitude and the Good Life: Toward a Psychology of Appreciation.”

“Gratitude is important to happiness, and it seems to be one of the most important aspects of happiness,” Watkins said. “Experimental research has shown that it’s not just that gratitude is associated with happiness. It’s not just that grateful people are happy people, it’s that gratitude actually causes happiness.”

Watkins said gratitude has many positive effects. He said it’s a good quality in any relationship because people like grateful people. Additionally, practicing gratitude makes someone happier because it trains them to look at the more positive aspects of their lives. If someone isn’t a naturally grateful person, gratitude exercises could be highly beneficial.

“One of the surprising findings of my research has been that the people who are least grateful gain most from gratitude exercises,” Watkins said. “The people who liked the exercises least are those who tend to gain most from them.”

Gratitude exercises can be something like keeping a journal or even writing a letter to someone to express your gratitude of them.

“Take that letter and actually visit them and read the letter to them,” Watkins said. “It’s a very embodied expression of gratitude. You’re not emailing them the letter, texting them the letter.”

Watkins said exercises like this can be moving experiences for people who often do boost their baseline, but it’s not meant to be a cure-all.

“Gratitude is not a magic formula,” Watkins said. “It’s not going to solve all your problems and make you rich and take you to heaven. It’s one reliable way of enhancing your happiness, but to treat it as the end-all for anybody’s unhappiness is probably wrongheaded.”

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