Why the universal age-happiness ‘U-shape’ is a myth

New research shows that happiness often does not increase as people get older. 

A popular idea in research on happiness suggests that people get happier as they get older – but new research shows that this idea comes from a misinterpretation of the research methods applied to data on people’s happiness.  

The study, published in the National Institute Economic Review, shows that happiness often decreases in older age as people face age-related challenges, such as declining health and family bereavement.  

Dr David Bartram is Director of Research for the School of Media, Communication, and Sociology at the University of Leicester explains:

"Many previous studies showed an increase in happiness in later life primarily because they set up the analysis in a way that fails to reflect the consequences of the challenges people typically face as they grow older.  Previous research has often consisted of statistical models where other variables are ‘held constant’.  If you hold constant the measures of people’s situations that change with age (such as marital status or health), then you get a result that would reflect people’s happiness if those things don’t actually change.  But we know these things do change with age: people can lose their spouses, or become ill, or suffer economic hardship.  

"We need an analysis that reflects what actually happens as people get older.  When we do the analysis this way, the ‘U-shape’ disappears for many countries – because many people are not getting happier as they get older.

"Using data from the European Social Survey, I show that the ‘U-shape’ is not evident for almost half of the 30 countries investigated.  People have very different experiences as they get older, depending on where they live.  If an effective welfare state is lacking, then ageing is often associated with declining income, which affects people’s happiness accordingly.  That pattern is especially evident in some Eastern European countries.  In Finland, by contrast, happiness remains constant across the life course, at a very high level (above eight on a zero-to-ten scale)."

For the UK, happiness does rise a bit as people head into retirement age – but it then generally declines as people become very old. The increase is also smaller than was presented in previous research, once we do the analysis in a way that allows the happiness consequences of age-related challenges to become evident.  

The research does, however, provide some solace in the fact that happiness doesn’t decline more sharply as people age, despite the challenges ageing brings.  Perhaps older people do gain a sense of gratitude and appreciation, as suggested by some of the ‘U-shape’ proponents.  But those mental adjustments at best work to mitigate the psychological consequences of ageing.  The study, therefore, shows that the notion that happiness always rises in older age is sadly a myth, reinforced by errors in previous research.