Middle age misery peaks around 47
According to a study from the US’s National Bureau of Economic Research, 47.2 is the unhappiest age you can be. Thankfully, according to this research, you become happier in your fifties and sixties.
No one can say for sure why this is the case but there are many logical possibilities. For many, the problems start when we look at our lives and feel that we aren’t where we had hoped we’d be. Most of us have a vision of how life should have turned out (or is turning out) and how life actually is. For most of us there is a discrepancy between reality and our vision and this can be unsettling and cause unhappiness.
As we get older, it becomes more apparent that we have less time to make our millions and retire financially secure. As we approach retirement age, it can be stressful thinking about how many years you have left to earn enough money to retire comfortably.
Career re-assessment time
At the age of forty-seven (or thereabouts) it’s common for many people to re-assess where they are in their careers. Younger colleagues might be vying for your job and you may wonder how useful you are in the corporate world. At the age of around forty-seven, thoughts may be entering about the future and retiring and where that leaves you. It can be an unsettling time.
Added responsibilities of ageing parents
In your late forties, it’s a common time for eldery parents to need more attention and effort. This can cause a strain on time and family life. Ageing parents can also be unsettling as it reminds us of our own mortality and we are faced with reminders of when our own parents were strong and independent and how this is changing for them. It’s a dose of reality and a reminder that we will be old and more reliant on our younger family members one day.
Children leaving home – “Empty Nest Syndrome”
If you have children, they may be leaving home to go to University and this can be a huge lifestyle change. Many parents (especially mothers) identify mainly as a parent and get their self worth from being a nurturing caregiver. When your children grow up and need you less, this can be difficult for someone who gains their self worth from their identity as a parent. Suddenly, their purpose shifts and their sense of meaning falls away. This is why I always advise parents to find other ways to gain their sense of identity and to have interests outside of being a doting parent to their children.
Lack of community
It’s a sad fact that the sense of community has faded. Long gone are the small villages where you knew the butcher and the baker. Nowadays, the sense of community has more or less disintegrated and traditional forms of community are harder to find. People find connection through online sources in increasing numbers but this can’t replace face to face connections. This can lead to a sense of isolation and feeling cut off from society. The older you get the more alone you are likely to feel.
The former Bank of England economist David Blanchflower, examined data across 132 countries, and found that the happiness curve is similarly U-shaped everywhere. It seems unclear whether this u happiness is due to first world problems (as listed above) or whether it is hard-wired in us (more genetic).
A 2012 study of chimpanzees and orangutans found that apes also have a midlife happiness low-point, at about the age of 30.
Possible reasons for increased happiness in your fifties and sixties
When you’re older you tend to worry less about what others think
When you’re older you definitely tend to care less about upsetting others. You feel there is possibly less time left and this encourages people to be more true to themselves and go after what truly makes them happy.
You know yourself better
Being self aware and knowing yourself allows you to be more efficient and managing your time and what you want to do with that time. You tend to have made mistakes and realised what works best for you. Don’t fool yourself though into believing that you ‘arrive’ at an all-knowing place when you get older. Sometimes I think, the older I get the more I realise how much I still have to learn!
Still, when you know yourself well, it can reduce some of life’s uncertainties and uncertainty is a major contributing factor to anxiety and unhappiness for many.
Typically more settled financially
As productive working life winds down, you tend to have more disposable time and income. This can be very satisfying and can lead to an improved quality of life where you can be more selfish and enjoy yourself more. You may find you have less responsibilities and less chores to complete.
You tend to please yourself more
For once, you can start to think more about the things you have always wanted to do. Before, ‘life’ got in the way – running the house, working, chores, to-do lists, playing taxi to the kids and so on.
The parameters for ‘unhappiness’ used in the study included: feelings of despair, anxiety, loneliness, sadness, strain, depression; bad nerves; phobias; panic; and being downhearted.
Also included were: having restless sleep; losing confidence in oneself; not being able to overcome difficulties; being under strain; feeling a failure; feeling left out; feeling tense; and thinking of yourself as a worthless person.
Which, y’know, is quite a lot of unhappiness by anyone’s standards.
The good news is that change is inevitable and if you do feel fed up with your situation, remind yourself that the ‘only way is up’ and that the sun will come out again. Hang in there in the interim and know that you aren’t alone – as the study clearly shows.