The Paradox of Aging: the Happiness U-Curve

When imagining aging, most middle-aged people look ahead with trepidation. But take heart: the best is likely yet to come!

Satisfaction surveys have found that happiness increases after middle age, and this pattern shows up around the globe. Referred to as the Happiness U-Curve, the data show that on average, life satisfaction drops during midlife and begins its recovery around age 50, reaching its peak at the end of life.

This perplexing phenomena and has been termed the paradox of aging. From a middle-aged vantage point, the specter of aging can fill you with dread as you imagine physical and mental decline. But it turns out that midlife is usually the most stressful period in life, with performance demands, caregiving stressors, and anxious comparisons to your peers and ideals. Dissatisfaction and stress peak during the 40s and then a mindset and emotional shift occurs.

The happiness U-curve seems partly determined by life experience as well as the biological, cognitive and emotional changes of aging itself which result in better emotional regulation, greater equanimity and compassion, more comfort with ambiguity, deeper gratitude and a focus upon meaningful engagement in the present.

With age, the focus turns away from social competition and toward social connection. As the end of life nears, priorities shift towards savoring life, love, and this present moment together. This gratitude for what matters most is easier to experience when life’s fleeting nature is salient. It’s intriguing to note that the same increase in life satisfaction ratings occurs temporarily after a life-threatening experience (shown in population studies conducted after earthquakes and after the 9/11 attacks).

So, it’s possible to jump up the Happiness Curve when reminded that life is fragile and fleeting. How can we sustain this perspective shift without being morose? A clue might come from the Buddhist meditation on impermanence, which is also associated with increased gratitude, equanimity and savoring. There is something about considering loss that can help you to find gratitude and joy in this moment regardless of your age. That just might be the real paradox underlying the happiness U-curve. Facing the inevitability of loss, and finding acceptance about this, can help you savor your life and beloveds now and increase your happiness today.

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