While Barack Obama may not see his birthday today as cause for celebration, social scientists suggest there may be something magical in that landmark.
“The growing body of research on happiness shows that as we pass middle age, our sense of well-being improves,” reports Libby Coleman, writing for Slate magazine. “Take the 2010 study that looked at more than 340,000 Americans and found that self-reported levels of anger, stress, and worry plummet at 50 and that a few years later, happiness rises. This pattern held true for men and women, married and unmarried, the working and the jobless—and, presumably, for presidents, too.”
So, at what age should you expect to get happy?
“The exact age at which the shift happens is a matter of some dispute,” writes Coleman. “A study that Slate wrote about in 2007 found 45 to be the average pivot point among Americans and Europeans. (The same study found that for some reason, the age at which happiness increases varies by country. Things start to look up after age 42 in South Africa, whereas Ukrainians have to wait till they pass 62.)
But whatever the exact timing, the fact of this mood swing feels counterintuitive: As we near decrepitude, should we not feel gloomier? Our friends are dying, our knees are giving out. What’s so great about getting old?
Despite the recent popularity of happiness studies among economists, psychologists, and other social scientists, the cause of the correlation between age and happiness remains somewhat mysterious. Psychiatry professor Arthur Stone of Stony Brook University, who helmed the 2010 study that named age 50 as an emotional turning point, initially figured environmental factors might account for his results. Shouldn’t people’s growing happiness in their 50s, 60s, and 70s have something to do with the joy of retiring? Or “maybe it’s kids going out of the house that changes people’s well-being, reduces their stress,” Stone told me he had theorized. But when he and colleagues controlled for these and other likely outside factors, the results stayed the same.
So what was causing this shift in well-being?
“I don’t think that we actually know,” Stone said.
Laura Carstensen, a Stanford psychology professor and longtime expert in the study of aging and happiness, believes she does. For decades she has been working on something she calls the theory of socioemotional selectivity. As young adults, she says, we “have to bank a lot of experiences,” investing in things that may be unpleasant, but that we hope will reap rewards in the future. We might go to a networking conference in hopes of getting a better job. We might take organic chemistry because we’re considering medical school. We might go on a blind date.
As we become older, we accept that there’s less time left to realize payoff from such investments, so we’re less likely to make them.