Happiness declines as you move from your glorious youth to adulthood and midlife, they say. Not true, argues a longitudinal study from Canada, claiming that the overall trajectory of happiness points upwards well into our midlife years.
A quarter of a century of life
A paper, based on data drawn from a 25-year longitudinal study by the University of Alberta (by researchers Nancy Galambos, Harvey Krahn, Matt Johnson and their team), concludes that contrary to widely quoted studies, happiness does not stall in mid-life.
The age curve in happiness from early adulthood to mid-life in two longitudinal studies refutes the claim that happiness is the domain of youth—that it’s all downhill once the stresses of adulthood kick in.
“I think it’s important to question conclusions that have already been drawn about mid-life happiness,” says Nancy Galambos, commenting on the cross-sectional research that incorrectly informs so much of the academic and popular opinion about happiness.
The importance of longitudinal data
Comparing an 18-year-old to a 43-year-old often fails to take into account differing life experiences, such as ethnicity and generational differences.
“– – If you want to see how people change as they get older, you have to measure the same individuals over time, you’ve got to look at longitudinal data,” says Harvey Krahn.
In the Edmonton-based study followed one cohort from ages 18 to 43 and another from ages 23 to 37.
How happy are you with your life right now?
In this particular study, the researchers simply asked participants, how happy they were with their life right now. Response options ranged from not very happy to very happy. The researchers note that they did not define happiness for the participants, nor did they ask for specific examples of happiness.
Although the happiness trajectory over this age period generally pointed up, not everyone in the study followed this trend.
“If I’m divorced and unemployed, and I have poor health at age 43, I’m not going to be happier than I was at age 18,” Galambos says. “It’s important to recognize the diversity of experiences as people move across life.”
“Happiness matters,” says Krahn. “For people’s own well-being and community well-being, let’s design a more social world that allows more people to be happy, even if they’re grumps at heart!”
This article is based on materials provided by the University of Alberta (original text by Donna McKinnon). Content may have been edited for style and length.
Original study: Galambos, N. L., Fang, S., Krahn, H. J., Johnson, M. D., & Lachman, M. E. (2015). Up, not down: The age curve in happiness from early adulthood to midlife in two longitudinal studies. Developmental Psychology, 51(11), 1664–1671. https://doi.org/10.1037/dev0000052