U-shaped happiness

As I’m reaching middle age, it started me to think about this fragile thing we call life.  From an early age we are taught, if you study hard you will go to a good university, then if you study hard at university you will have a good job, if you have a good job you will be able to buy a house. Etc. So, we are always being taught when we achieve this we will be happy. But why can’t we just be happy in the present?

Jeremy Bentham was an English philosopher and is considered the founder of utilitarianism, he had a view that the ratio of pleasure to pain is all that matters.  John Mill adjusted the slightly hedonistic tendencies by emphasising it is not the quality of happiness and the calculusis unreasonable as qualities is quantified, happiness cannot be measured.

However, everything now is increasingly more measureable, such as with social media; how many followers you have, how many likes you have on a post. 

So, is it indicative that everything has a measure and can we indeed measure happiness?

The issue of how people’s happiness and psychological well‐being alter over lifespans is of increasing scientific interest, especially if it can be quantified in our measurable world.

The beautiful kingdom of Bhutan, guiding principle is to satisfy the well-being and collective happiness of its residents through an index of measurable and attainable lifegoals, called Gross National Happiness (GNH), with their previous king claiming GNH to be more important than Gross Domestic Product (GDP), they rank 97 on theworld’s happiest list so they have a way to go, but certainly their priorities are right and it is such an amazing country to visit. The Scandanaviain countries usually rank the highest, Finland for example enjoys more forest per square mile than any European country, high environmental standards and of low threat levels marks it one of the most peaceful places on Earth. 

But, let’s look at life stages, there is a large cross sectional evidence base which provides support for the U-shape path of happiness and well-being over the human lifespan. 

What is the U-shape curve?

Evidence suggests that in general we start off in our late teens with a high level of contentment. From the age of 18 we gradually become less happy, reaching a nadir in our 40’s.  With life satisfaction scores dipping an average of 5-10%.  But, research suggests life happiness levels is U-shaped.  Once we have hit this nadir,our levels of happiness will begin to rise again, suggesting more contentment in later life.  By the time we reach our 60’s, we are at a peak happiness with our life. The research also suggests that men tend to happier than women.

This U-shape curve of happiness isn’t just found in humans, but also in apes, who found an equivalent quadratic life‐cycle pattern has recently been reproduced in research on samples of great apes.  A study of 500 chimpanzees and orangutans rated for happiness by their zookeepers indicated a primate mid-life crisis at around the age of 30. 

So for once I am looking forward to ageing and climbing back up the quantifiable happiness scale, even if it is quite subjective.

Virginia Woolf, in The Waves wrote “Happiness is in the quiet, ordinary things. A Table, a chair, a book with a paper-knife stuck between the pages. And the petals falling from the rose, and the light flickering as we sit silent.”

This is what my happiness is tranquillity, harmony and feeling safe, surrounded by books and stars.

In case you’re wondering, UK ranked at 19th. The world’s least happy country was Burundi, followed by Central African Republic, South Sudan and Tanzania, marking a sad reflection of life in Africa. 

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