Life Gets Better After 47, Says New Happiness Research
Every lifetime has a U-shaped ‘happiness curve.’ At 50, I can tell you what that means.
I’m 50 years old, which means I’m roughly two-and-a-half years removed from the unhappiest point in my life.
That number isn’t arbitrary. It comes from new research by Dartmouth economist David Blanchflower. After examining data from 500,000 people in 132 countries, he’s pinpointed the exact age when the majority of people in developed parts of the world feel the most miserable: 47.2.
Every lifetime has a U-shaped “happiness curve,” he concludes in the study, which was published by the National Bureau of Economic Research. The average bottom of that curve, where we’re at our most forlorn, is the same regardless of whether we’re rich or poor, healthy or ill, married or single. Across the board, 47.2 is consistently the worst.
While rock-bottom sorrow doesn’t seem like something that’s open to sweeping generalizations (it’s like trying to determine the precise age in which everybody gets their heart broken for the first time), at least for me, the research seems pretty accurate. For most of my life, I’ve been a generally happy person. But around 47-ish, I became an emotional wreck, despite being at a professional high point.
I’d been a freelance writer for almost 25 years, but as the father of a young son, I felt like it was time to be a grown-up and find a “real” job, one with some financial stability. So I accepted a full-time position as an editor at a popular men’s magazine. I was making a ridiculous salary — at least by freelance journalist standards — with full health coverage, a 401(k), and a spacious office with a standing desk and views of a duck pond.
But I hated it. I hated waking up every morning and putting on pants and driving to an office. I especially hated the pants part.
On one god-awful day in particular, I was driving to the office when the Harry Chapin song “Cat’s in the Cradle” came on the radio. I burst into tears. It wasn’t because the song is so sad — it’s always been sad — but because for the first time in my life, I identified with the dad character. I’d gone from somebody who didn’t miss a milestone in his kid’s life to being the working dad who says, unconvincingly, “We’ll get together soon, son.”
Does that prove the Dartmouth study? Of course not. But from my own anecdotal experience, the conclusion is easy to believe. I asked my 47-and-older friends about their experiences. Was 47 and change the time when everything seemed the most hopeless and melancholic? The consensus: For the most part, yes.
“I lost my job, lost my daughter, was homeless, had numerous health issues, and dealt with a very sick parent,” my friend Anthony told me.
“I don’t remember if that was the precise worst time,” said Sondra, “but I did attempt suicide around that time, so I’m going with ‘probably.’”
Friends told me stories of failed marriages and fizzled careers, cancer battles and dead friends, and a general sinking feeling that life is some cruel joke. So maybe there is something to that 47.2 number. (Granted, human memory is malleable, and my asking them about a specific age may have influenced the way they remembered it.)
But there is one thing the research doesn’t address, and that’s why.
I asked Blanchflower, the author of the study, whether he had any insight, but he told me he didn’t discover any unifying reason for people falling into despair at that point.
Dean Burnett, a neuroscientist and author of the book The Happy Brain: The Science of Where Happiness Comes From, and Why, has one theory: A few months into 47 might be when people realize that 50, a scary milestone birthday, is almost upon them. “It’s often that a potential scenario is more stressful than a literal one,” he said. “Sort of like how ripping the Band-Aid off is never as bad as you fear it’s going to be.”
The good news from Blanchflower’s study is that it doesn’t get worse. The happiness curve means that you’ll rebound from the sadness of your late forties and ease into something approaching contentment in your fifties and beyond.
Why? That’s a bit easier to explain, says Blanchflower: “People start getting realistic in their lives,” he says. “That big dream they had about themselves, that they were finally going to write the great American novel or become a big pop superstar, it disappears. They start to accept that their lives are probably as good as they’re going to get, and that’s okay.”
This idea rang true with my middle-aged friends.
“I take more joy from the little things now,” my friend Jeff said. “And I have almost completely stopped caring what others think about me. That is wonderfully freeing.”
“Every decade of your life brings new revelations,” my friend Klaus told me. “I hope my sixties and seventies will keep bringing them. But peak happiness? Sometimes that’s just a beer and a good book.”
As for me, I eventually lost that fancy job at the magazine and went back to freelancing. As I approached the midcentury mark, I no longer had the office with a duck-pond view or anything resembling a dependable income.
But I was often blissfully happy — and I remain so. I work from home, so I’m always around when my son comes back from school or my wife comes home from work. And as I write this, I’m not wearing pants. (Sorry not sorry!)
I no longer panic that this could be my last chance to make my mark, to do something big and meaningful with my life while I still have the chance. My 5–0 milestone came and went, and Burnett was right: It was like pulling off a Band-Aid.
It’s not that sadness goes away. There’s still plenty to be sad about. But the bar for happiness gets a little lower, which makes all the good things seem a little brighter.