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Myth of the midlife crisis: Happiness ticks up after this age, research shows
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Midlife crisis may be a myth and research does not describe aging as a long, drawn-out decline. Rather, personal happiness begins to increase at a certain age. - photo by Lois M. Collins
Researchers agree that personal happiness begins to increase at a certain age, although what that age is has been debated a bit. As for that midlife crisis, though, you can probably skip it.

As Chris Purdy wrote for The Globe and Mail, "New research from the University of Alberta suggests theres no such thing as a mid-life crisis. Its more like midlife bliss." She notes the researchers found their subjects "happier in their early 40s than when they were in their late teens and early 20s."

Lead researcher and psychology professor Nancy Galambos said the 20s are an uncertain time when people are looking at careers and figuring things out, according to the article.

Theres a lot of uncertainty. But by middle age, a lot of people have worked that out and are quite satisfied through the earliest child-bearing years, Galambos said.

"I do think that midlife crisis is a myth," Galambos told CBC.

For the research, which was published in Developmental Psychology, they tracked high school students for 25 years and graduating college students for more than 14 years, each time asking, "How happy are you with your life?" The level of happiness dropped slightly between ages 32 and 43, but was still higher than when they were in their teens and early 20s. It was highest when they were "married, in good health and had jobs," Purdy reported.

The trajectory of happiness as one ages has been described in various ways, but most consistently as a giant U. Under that theory, well-publicized by The Economist and others around 2010, joy slips a bit from the teen years on, before flattening out. Around 50, though, it starts to rise and keeps going up.

Here's the magazine's description: "When people start out on adult life, they are, on average, pretty cheerful. Things go downhill from youth to middle age until they reach a nadir commonly known as the midlife crisis. So far, so familiar. The surprising part happens after that. Although as people move towards old age they lose things they treasure vitality, mental sharpness and looks they also gain what people spend their lives pursuing: happiness."

Suzanne Phillips, a psychologist, recapped on a PBS blog some of that study's theories on why growing older which can include some negatives like becoming more frail doesn't stop the upward happiness trajectory. It might be larger perspective and more "psychological intelligence" to deal with life, lower expectations, greater sense of accomplishment, more "living in the moment," better ability to handle ups and downs, or even less need to worry about pleasing others, among other suggestions.

She noted that stress and worry drop been ages 20 and 30, then increases into midlife, before dropping again. "Sadness stays relatively the same across the life span," she wrote.

Other researchers have set the ages where the U-shape changes slightly differently, though the theory's relatively the same. Last year, the Daily Mail noted a new study out of the University of New South Wales in Australia found 80 is the happiest time.

One theory is that unhappy people don't live that long.

Others experts are skeptical of the U-curve analysis, according to a report in the Deseret New National edition last year.

Social historian Steven Mintz of the University of Texas at Austin flips the U-curve and sees a peak of fulfillment in midlife, when many people have more responsibilities with the opportunity to make more meaningful contributions than at any other time.

In terms of a meaningful life, youre more likely to feel that at midlife than at any other point, he said in an interview. In fact, middle age is lifes prime, truly, Mintz wrote in Psychology Today.
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