Is the latter half of life really the happier one?

31 May 2021

In the following conversation on “the best years of our lives”, LMU sociologists Fabian Kratz and Josef Brüderl argue that the idea is a myth.


© IMAGO / imagebroker / Patrick Frischknecht

Dr. Fabian Kratz is a member of the academic staff in LMU’s Institute of Sociology (Chair of Quantitative Inequality and Family Research). His work focuses on social inequality, education and migration, and on methods of social research.

You have quantified how happiness is distributed across the human life cycle, and the results have prompted you to speak of ‘the myth of the U-shaped curve’. Why?

Fabian Kratz: The U-shaped curve is the most popular depiction of the relationship between age and subjective well-being, and the one most frequently featured in the media. It suggests that people are happiest in their early years and become less happy thereafter until they encounter a midlife crisis, after which their level of satisfaction rises again. This model implies that people are happiest in their younger years and after they retire.

What exactly do we mean when we talk about happiness?

In our study we use an operational definition, which replaces the term happiness by the phrase subjective well-being. Subjects answered the question: “On a scale of 0 to 10, how satisfied are you with your life overall?” That’s the scalemost often used to measure life satisfaction, and the term itself is frequently taken to mean subjective well-being or, more colloquially, happiness.

So this measure has less to do with one‘s happiest moments?

Correct. The measure of life satisfaction that we use is, more or less, a cognitive estimate of how well things are going in one’s life at the moment. But there is a strong association between this subjective parameter and particularly happy moments. Sociologists refer to the latter as ‘positive affects’, and people who experience these more often also report higher levels of satisfaction with their lives.

What then does the happiness graph you have plotted look like?

Based on a scale of 0-10, the curve drops off between the ages of 18 and 55. Between the ages of 55 and 65, it rises by 0.1 points, before dropping 4 points between 65 and 90. This last and strongest effect is attributable to physical and cognitive decline in old age. The unhappiest years of our lives are definitely the last three to five years – unless, that is, one dies suddenly at a young age.

This finding stands in stark contrast to the stories about smiling and contented ‘silver-haired retirees’ in the media.

Indeed. The picture presented in the media is a distorted one. Doubtless, there are many ‘silver agers’, but they are certainly not representative of life as most people experience it. The problem is that the idea raises false expectations, and disappointed expectations have a catastrophic effect on happiness. For many people, the second half of life is overshadowed by illness and the loss of close acquaintances and family members. It is important here to take a realistic view, to learn ways of approaching the future with a degree of equanimity, which helps one to develop a certain level of resilience.

So optimism should have a positive effect on well-being?

Indeed, people who are optimistic appear on average to be more satisfied with their lives. But this correlation can be turned upside down: Individuals who are, on the whole, satisfied with their lives tend to have a more optimistic view of things. Disappointments, on the other hand, exacerbate unhappiness. In this context, research clearly shows that lower levels of aspiration – in other words, less ambitious expectations – help people to cope better with adverse outcomes. One is then in a better position to face the slings and arrows that life inevitably holds in store than if one believes that things are on the up-and-up and then disaster ensues.

If, as your study suggests, happiness declines from a relatively young age, at what age does it reach its peak?

The data we use is taken from the German Socioeconomic Panel (SOEP) – the longest-running panel study that includes information on life satisfaction, for which individuals belonging to different birth cohortsare interviewed at regular intervals. Based on these data, the peak occurs early – at the age of 18 years.

Does it trouble you to know that the best moments of your life are now behind you?

Well, I have to point out here that these data are based on mean values. The average satisfaction scores tell us this is indeed the case. Nevertheless, there are individual life courses in whichhappiness rises with age. But many people begin to experience health problems from around the age of 65. – And research data clearly show that pain or chronic health problems are highly inimical to happiness.

To return to your curve for a moment, at what point does one find the mean happiness quotient, on a scale of 0 to 10?

That parameter varies widely between countries. The World Happiness Report demonstrates that the most satisfied people are those who live in Finland, where the average score is a little less than 8. The least satisfied are the inhabitants of Afghanistan. Here the mean falls to approximately 2.5. In Germany, people are quite content overall, with an average score of around 7. Roughly speaking these figures from the World Happiness Report agree with those we have derived from the data collected by the SOEP.

That’s not bad, is it?

It’s OK, but at the same time, the data reveal a high degree of social stratification. Individuals whose parents are well educated are on average more satisfied with their lot than are persons from families with lower levels of educational attainment. – Moreover, across all relevant age groups, people with higher degrees are happier than those with lesser qualifications. Certainly, there are many, especially among the more highly educated, who do not become unhappier in later phases of life.

But many of those who have had negative experiences early on, and lack the resources necessary to make their own way, reach a stage in which their prospects plummet. However, the crucial point is that one’s actions can have a real impact on one’s fortunes.

How do you mean?

Physical activity and sports, together with a balanced diet, can reduce the rate of biological aging. By choosing one‘s social networks, family structures and places of residence carefully, it’s possible to ensure that one always has a circle of friends within reach. By engaging in voluntary work, for instance, one can also earn social recognition. A lot depends on the balance between stimulation and comfort: A great deal of dissatisfaction arises from a feeling of having taken on more than one can handle, such that nothing gets done properly.

On the other hand, too little stimulation can lead to deep depression. After the boxer Tyson Fury won the World Heavyweight Championship, he fell into a deep depression. Although he apparently had everything he could wish for, he no longer had a goal in life. Sociologists refer to this phenomenon as ‘anomie’, a term introduced by Emil Durkheim.

But you also say that one’s social situation, particularly in one’s earliest years, plays an important role in determining one’s overall level of satisfaction. Does the difference between those who are unhappy in later life and those who manage to remain optimistic widen as the years pass?

It does, yes. We demonstrated that in an article that appeared in the journal European Sociological Review. The better educated have higher income profiles, are less likely to experience periods of unemployment and have access to better health care than those who are less well educated. These mechanisms largely explain why the gulf between those with academic qualifications and everybody else gets wider with age.

In a different research paper, we showed that this educational differential also applies to one’s parents – and this effectively increases the likelihood that happiness can be inherited. Analyses of these patterns and processes also show that unhappy and disadvantaged people have lower life expectancies.

So those who are unhappy in early life are also likely to die at a younger age?

Exactly. This sad fact is reflected in the observation that, from the age of 55 or so, those who are unhappy begin to disappear from the SOEP’s sample population. These premature deaths partly account for the misleading form of the U-shaped curve: Comparisons of subjective well-being between 20-year-olds and nonagenarians pit a population of extremely robust survivors against young adults. The basic reason for the assertion that elderly people are happier than younger sections of the population is that the unhappy are left out – because they are already dead.

Do you have any information on the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on subjective assessments of life satisfaction?

There are very few trustworthy data so far. But initial findings suggest that single people who live alone are particularly affected by the loss of intimacy caused by lockdowns. The self-employed, who have suffered significant economic losses, are quite naturally unhappier than before. Otherwise, the familiar patterns reappear. For example, people who find support in religion tend to cope better with crises. Overall, the coronavirus crisis could further promote the myth that the happiness quotient follows a U-shaped profile over a person’s lifetime.

Why is that?

Studies have clearly shown that the risk of dying of Covid-19 is highest for elderly members of disadvantaged groups. This could amplify the ‘mortality selection bias’, and that would make it look as if well-being rises even faster after the so-called midlife crisis, simply because life expectancy among the unfortunate and underprivileged has decreased owing to the pandemic.

Fabian Kratz has measured the effect of age on subjective well-being.

Why are researchers interested in the subject in the first place?

For researchers, the quest for insight is the primary motivation. The goal of our study was to accurately measure the effect of age on subjective well-being, in order to obtain a realistic picture of how this parameter varies over time. After all, this factor is of considerable political relevance. Those who accept the U-shaped trajectory call for measures to mitigate the effects of the midlife crisis.

In contrast, our results would argue that we need solutions specifically for the oldest sections of society. Many elderly people are lonely and have nobody to rely on, and when the old need full-time nursing care their families and acquaintances are often faced with huge challenges.

When I first came across the U-shaped curve at university, I was very surprised. The notion that the elderly are happier than the young was completely at odds with what I had experienced. I was lucky enough to grow up with three great-grandmothers and both pairs of grandparents, and I spent a great deal of my time with elderly persons. They always told me: when one is old, everything is more difficult - and advised me to enjoy my young life.

Dr. Fabian Kratz and Professor Josef Brüderl have made their article on “The Age Trajectory of Happiness” available on a preprint server.

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