Is happiness just a matter of waiting for the right age?

Subjective well-being metrics (which include happiness) are increasingly being used by academics, governments, and international institutions as complimentary gauges of economic and social progress. Measures of life satisfaction, reported mental illness, and/or daily moods and experiences—ranging from contentment to stress and anger—can help us understand a range of behaviors, as well as their welfare benefits or costs, across individuals, countries, and generations. 

Over the past decades, numerous studies have found recurrent patterns between happiness and important life experiences such as employment, marital status, and/or earnings, which, in turn, lead to differences in investment profiles, productivity, voting incentives, and attitudes toward health

Among these relationships, the one between age and happiness—often referred to as “the U-curve”—is particularly striking due to its consistency across individuals, countries, and cultures. Happiness declines with age for about two decades from early adulthood up until roughly the middle-age years, and then turns upward and increases with age. Although the exact shape differs across countries, the bottom of the curve (or, the nadir of happiness) ranges from 40 to 60 plus years old. 

The turning point also varies depending on where in the well-being distribution people are. In other words, it varies depending on how naturally happy or unhappy people are (which is, in turn, linked to innate character traits). Based on Gallup data from around the world for 2005-2014, we find that the age at which the U-curve begins ascending for those in the happiest quantile of the well-being distribution is 47, those in the middle quantile is 58, and the least happy quantile is 61

We explored how this relationship varies across countries throughout the world, based on nationally representative household surveys, again from Gallup data (2005-2014), with observations per country pooled over the years, with an average of 6,400 observations per country. We rely on a question that asks respondents to place themselves on an 11-step ladder in which their lives compare to the best possible life they can imagine, where the best life is on step 10 and the worst at step zero. We control for marital status, gender, employment, and education. Figure 1 shows the turning points for all the countries where data is available, where darker colors correspond to higher turning points.

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