A new IZA discussion paper by Andrew Clark, Born To Be Mild? Cohort Effects Don’t (Fully) Explain Why Well-Being Is U-Shaped in Age, advances the long-running debate on the relationship between age and happiness. Chris Dillow at Stumbling and Mumbling explains it well:
For some time, those of us in our early 40s have been able to find comfort in economic research, as this has shown that happiness is U-shaped in age; people become unhappier until their early 40s, but then cheer up.
But why? Early research was unable to distinguish between two possibilities - that there's something abut the average life which causes this U-shape, or that it's a cohort effect; people born 40-odd years ago are unhappier than those born earlier or later.
This new paper by Andrew Clark finds that it's the former. His evidence is fairly straightforward. Let's say we found in 1995 that 41-year-olds were the most unhappy people, controlling for other things. If this were a cohort effect, you'd expect the unhappiest people in 1996 to be 42-year-olds, the unhappiest in 1997 to be 43-year-olds, and so on.
But this isn't so, he finds. Which implies that the U-shape is due to life events, not the fact that people born the in the mid-50s are naturally misery-guts.
The U-shape, he finds, is more pronounced for men than women, and for the higher-educated than less educated. Well-being troughs, on average, just after our 41st birthday.
But why? One possibility is that men in their late 30s become increasingly stressed out by work or their kids, and realize the missus is losing her looks. But they begin to sort these problems out, or get used to them, by their mid-40s.
I'm suprised by this. Intuitively, one could equally well argue that one's early 40s are the best times. You're old enough not to worry about money, but young enough not to worry about health. And you're old enough to have some happy memories, but not so old as to have lost hope of turning things around. So why are these considerations - on average - offset by others?