(Link to report repaired)

 If you’re older than 44, that is.

If not, skip the middle bit – it will only make you miserable.

For those older than 44, apparently things only get better.  This is exceptionally good news, because I am 45.  I am delighted that I can now rest assured that all of my miserable friends who are also 45 or older will only have increasing happiness, and I will console those of my younger miserable friends that it is not long until things improve for them too.  Good news all round …

Stephen Moss
Wednesday January 30, 2008
The Guardian 

‘The first 40 years of life is text, the rest is commentary,” wrote Schopenhauer. Setting the watershed as low as 40 is arguable, but Schopenhauer surely had a point, and it may help to explain the results of a new survey that puts our most depressed age at 44. This vast study, carried out jointly by researchers at Warwick University and Dartmouth College in the US, has concluded that happiness is U-shaped: it peaks when we are 20 and 70, but slumps in the middle. “You would expect people to get unhappier as they get closer to death,” says Professor Andrew Oswald of Warwick University, “but the opposite appears to be the case. It is a mystery why this happens

If we trust Schopenhauer, it is no mystery at all. Your 40s are the point at which the act of composition – climbing the career ladder, having affairs, believing you are the next Montaigne – is replaced by the art of reflection and perhaps regret. How did I fail to become prime minister? Why did I have those affairs? Where is my oeuvre? At 44, those thoughts – as I painfully recall – are uppermost in your mind, and sometimes you will blame anyone but yourself for your failures. But trust me, you will come through it. I reached 50 last year, and far from being distressed by that supposedly defining moment, I’ve never felt better. I now accept that I am deep into my commentary period, and am enjoying it hugely. In your 20s and 30s, you think there is some big secret that is being withheld from you. But there is no secret. No one has a clue what they’re doing or why. By 44 you are distressed to discover there is no secret and that life’s glittering prizes are made of tin. But then comes the getting of wisdom. As Oswald observes, “When you get older, you’ve learned to accept yourself.” You aren’t Montaigne, you aren’t going to be PM, you are just you. In Schopenhauerian terms, will is replaced by art, acceptance and a sense of the universal. You learn to enjoy the comedy of life’s struggle, and happily take your place in this huge and leaking lifeboat.”

You can read the full report of the research (much more interesting that the short taster) here.  Things can only get better.

The report intended to sort out the ceteris paribus correlation, that is whether well-being is U-shaped over a lifetime, or whether previous studies had produced skewed results because some generations, or some cohorts (such as those born in a particular decade) were happier or less happy than others.   Several data sources were used.  Initially data was sampled at random from the General Social Surveys of the United States and the Eurobarometer Surveys in Europe.  Analysis of these data sets showed that well-being amongst American men was lowest around 53 years of age, much later than for American women (around 38-40), and later also than the happiness minimum for European men and women who were both at their most unhappy at about 47. 

If women marry earlier than men, then perhaps the unhappiness peaks at the time that both have to contend with teenage children?  The authors of the report say not: “The well-being U shape in age is apparently not produced by the influence of children”.  They deduce from looking at different age cohorts, however, that while Europeans are about as happy or unhappy as they have always been since the 1950s at a particular age, successive American birth cohorts have – since the early 1900s – become progressively less happy.  This difference cannot, the authors say,  be explained away by a difference in use of language or perception of the meaning of words used to describe well-being in the surveys.

Within Europe there are substantial variations between countries, pooling male and female results.  People in the UK become unhappier earliest (35.8 ) and those in Portual latest (66.1) with most other countries hovering around 49.

Data from the UK Labour Force Survey was used to test the Eurobarometer findings.  Depression and anxiety figures taken from a sample from approximately one million observations shows that the measure of mental ill-health turns around at 46.

The authors cannot provide any answers as to why the graphs should, across 72 countries, take on such a U shape, nor why the troughs appear when they do in each country.  One suspects that the reasons are particular to each country and its culture, although some truths may cross national barriers.  Oswald and Blanchflower tentatively suggest three factors:

  • That individuals learn to adapt to their strengths and weaknesses, and quell infeasible aspirations
  • That happy people live longer, so that those who survive to older age record higher levels of well-being
  • That schadenfreude or similar effectively prevents us from repeating the mistakes of our peers

These results may be amusing for us, but they are important for policy makers.  It should be possible from a careful analysis of individual country statistics to work out when men and women are least happy and why.  Unhappiness costs the state lots of money – in days off sick from work, in benefits paid to single parents as a result of divorces, in treating depression and anxiety in adults and in their children, in the criminal justice system.  I’d like to know more about the statistics for the UK, separating out men from women, and looking at the variables – number of children, employment or lack of it, socio-economic status, health and so on.

Which leads me on to a rare burst of cruel British humour from another Prime Minister in waiting.

I have to include this wonderful excerpt from a speech made by William Hague, in the House of Commons on 21st January.  The background is, of course, Gordon Brown’s long lived ambition to unseat Tony Blair and become Prime Minister, an ambition recently achieved without an election even.  Here – in the grand tradition of British Parliamentary oratory – William Hague warns him of what is still to come …

“To see how the post of a permanent President of the European Council could evolve is not difficult even for the humblest student of politics, and it is, of course, rumoured that one Tony Blair may be interested in the job. If that prospect makes us uncomfortable on the Conservative Benches, just imagine how it will be viewed in Downing street! I must warn Ministers that having tangled with Tony Blair across the Dispatch Box on hundreds of occasions, I know his mind almost as well as they do. I can tell them that when he goes off to a major political conference of a centre-right party and refers to himself as a socialist, he is on manoeuvres, and is busily building coalitions as only he can.

We can all picture the scene at a European Council sometime next year. Picture the face of our poor Prime Minister as the name “Blair” is nominated by one President and Prime Minister after another: the look of utter gloom on his face at the nauseating, glutinous praise oozing from every Head of Government, the rapid revelation of a majority view, agreed behind closed doors when he, as usual, was excluded. Never would he more regret no longer being in possession of a veto: the famous dropped jaw almost hitting the table, as he realises there is no option but to join in. And then the awful moment when the motorcade of the President of Europe sweeps into Downing street. The gritted teeth and bitten nails: the Prime Minister emerges from his door with a smile of intolerable anguish; the choking sensation as the words, “Mr President”, are forced from his mouth. And then, once in the Cabinet room, the melodrama of, “When will you hand over to me?” all over again.”

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