HANOVER, N.H. - The dreaded mid-life crisis may be a response to life’s peak of misery, according to a study published Monday in the National Bureau of Economic Research.
David Blanchflower, Dartmouth College Professor and former Bank of England policy maker, looked at trends in 132 countries to examine the relationship between well-being and age, and he determined that the peak of life’s misery arrives at the median age of 47.2.
"Ceteris paribus, a typical individual’s well-being reaches its minimum — on both sides of the Atlantic and for both males and females — in middle age," Blanchflower wrote.
Prior surveys of self-reported well-being generally argue that happiness across a lifetime is either relatively flat or slightly increasing with age, but Blanchflower wanted to better understand age’s relationship to happiness.
To better quantify this relationship, Blanchflower looked at data from 500,000 randomly sampled Americans and West Europeans.
He found that each country has a “happiness curve” — in other words, happiness follows a U-shaped trajectory. People generally reach peak unhappiness in mid-life, with greater experiences of happiness in youth and old age.
Blanchflower found this to be true for the majority of people in all 132 countries even after controlling for other influences upon life happiness and satisfaction such as income, education level and marriage. This supports the theory that age has an effect on overall happiness independent of everything else going on in a person’s life.
“The curve’s trajectory holds true in countries where the median wage is high and where it is not and where people tend to live longer and where they don’t,” Blanchflower wrote.
In the U.S., there was a slightly larger gap between peak male unhappiness and that of their female counterparts. Happiness among American males reaches a minimum in their early 50s, whereas women experience peak unhappiness in their late 30s. In Europe, reported life satisfaction for both men and women hits its lowest point around the mid-40s.
In a separate study released by NBER Monday, Blanchflower pointed out the significance of his findings in relation to widespread societal shifts towards prioritizing mental health care that have come in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis.
“The resiliency of communities left behind by globalization was diminished by the Great Recession which made it especially hard for the vulnerable undergoing a midlife crisis with few resources, to withstand the shock,” Blanchflower wrote.
This story was reported from Los Angeles.