Adults love annoying kids by saying things like, “Youth is wasted on the young,” and, “Your school days are the best of your life!” Meanwhile, those young people stare back in disbelief, imagining how much happier they’ll be when they’re free from exam stress and clueless grownups telling them what to do all the time. But can science determine exactly when in our lives we feel happiest?
A team of researchers from Germany and Switzerland recently set out to do just that. Their comprehensive study included over 400 unique samples and a grand total of over 460,000 participants, and looked at how happiness varies over someone’s life course.
“We focused on changes in three central components of subjective well-being,” explained first author Susanne Bücker in a statement. This is a well-established concept in psychology, encapsulating someone’s experience and evaluation of their own life. For this study, Bücker said, the team concentrated on “life satisfaction, positive emotional states and negative emotional states.”
Previous research into this deceptively simple question has sparked a lot of debate. One theory that has captured many people’s attention is that of the U shape of happiness, where well-being peaks during one’s 20s and in old age, with a significant drop during midlife. Some have used this as evidence for midlife crises; others are not so sure.
By focusing on multiple aspects of subjective well-being, and including data from different countries and cultures, the authors of the new study hoped to get a more comprehensive overview.
According to the data, life satisfaction decreased between the ages of 9 and 16, then increased slightly up until the age of 70, before declining again until the age of 96.
For the second factor, positive emotional states, the authors observed a general decline across the whole life course, from ages 9 to 94.
The final factor, negative emotional states, appeared to fluctuate from the age of 9 to 22, before declining throughout adulthood until age 60, when they began to increase again.
In general, both positive and negative emotional states changed more over the course of human life than did life satisfaction. “Overall, the study indicated a positive trend over a wide period of life, if we look at life satisfaction and negative emotional states,” Bücker summarized.
The results broadly fit with the assumptions many would have about the trajectory of an average human life. Puberty and adolescence is a stressful time, full of change and social pressures, so it makes sense that life satisfaction might take a dip during this period. Equally, in much older people, declining health and loss of friends and loved ones could contribute to a decrease in well-being.
So, in short, there’s no easy answer to the question posed at the top of this article. The results of this study show that different contributors to subjective well-being have their own distinct patterns during a lifetime, so the authors hope that this could be used to better tailor efforts to promote happiness in different age groups – particularly the over 70s, in whom the general trend was towards decreasing well-being.
This in itself, though, is something the researchers highlight in their paper as needing more work: “Given that the evidence on the effectiveness of well-being interventions is still sparse […] future research in this area is strongly needed.”
To find out more about the science of happiness, check out issue 14 of our free e-magazine, CURIOUS, in which we ask the question: “Can we learn to be happier?”
The study is published in the journal Psychological Bulletin.