Feel free to go out and buy that Harley Davidson or that cool electric guitar, but you’re going to need a different excuse to justify it to your friends and family. That’s because your midlife crisis doesn’t exist, say researchers from the University of Alberta. The study found that the unhappiness associated with getting older is a myth.
The common thinking is that happiness follows a U-curve, with the trough in our middle years. But the new study, from researchers Nancy Galambos, Harvey Krahn, and Matt Johnson, suggests that this just isn’t true. They say that we actually get progressively happier as we get older.
The team carried out a longitudinal study, which tracks individuals over time, instead of comparing people of different ages. “If you want to know with more certainty how individuals change, you can’t compare people of different ages,” Krahn told the Alberta University Faculty of Arts. “Comparing an 18-year-old to a 43-year-old often fails to take into account differing life experiences, such as ethnicity and generational differences. If you want to see how people change as they get older, you have to measure the same individuals over time, you’ve got to look at longitudinal data.”
In contrast to the complexity of tracking two groups over the years (one from 18 to 43 years old, the other from 23 to 37 years old), the study method itself was dead simple. Participants were asked “How happy are you with your life right now?” with answer options ranging from “not very” to “very.”
The answers were very simple to measure: People are more likely to say they’re happy the older they are.
So why does the myth of mid-life crisis persist? While people in their middle years are much happier overall than morose teens or malcontent twenty-somethings, potential tragedies related to divorce, unemployment, and physical health are more likely as you age.
What does this mean for society? If depressed teens and college students are the least happy people in our society, perhaps we need to focus more energy and attention on their mental health, and finding ways to add some happiness to their lives. If they can be happier in their youth, they’re just going to get happier from there.