Here is a riddle for you, what is the same across 132 countries all over the world including 95 developing nations and the United States?
Is it the unemployment rate?
Is it the consumer price index?
Could it be the real GDP?
No, of course not. How could anything possibly be the same when contrasting a country with an obesity problem and one where humans are dying of starvation? Well, according to Dartmouth University professor David Blanchflower, one thing comes to mind and that is unhappiness.
In his brand new published study on age and subjective well-being, Blanchflower not only establishes data that prove unhappiness exists in all 132 countries he researched, but he also claims that nearly the exact same “Unhappiness Curve” exists in every nation from the richest and freest to the poorest and worst off.
“The curve’s trajectory holds true in countries where the median wage is high and where it is not and where people tend to live longer and where they don’t,” Blanchflower wrote in the “Age and Subjective Well-being” study
The above graph is of age mapped against unhappiness in the United States and comes directly from his eyebrow-raising study. The blue dots indicate averages of the actual responses from the cohort and the orange dots indicate the same responses but controlled for environmental and economic factors depending on location in the country.
Regardless of which line you look at, there is a clear pattern emerging from the data. Individuals from 18–40 find their level of unhappiness increasing pretty consistently and slowly. But from 40–50, we see reported levels of unhappiness skyrocket.
Essentially, the U.S population is the least happy it’s ever been.
In true economist fashion, Blanchflower has gone so far as to provide us with an exact age in which happiness is the lowest in our lives. This peak moment of misery? 47.2 in the developed world and 48.2 in developing nations.
So, what does this mean?
Well, it depends how old you are. I’m kidding- kind of.
For myself, more information has always been a positive thing even if the information itself was negative. Think of it this way- if a stock market crash were unavoidable but you could find out exactly when it would be wouldn’t you want to know? You couldn’t do anything to prevent it or make any money off of it because you weren’t told of the specifics but you could safeguard your finances and prepare for the trouble.
The good news about Blanchflower having identified the peak age of unhappiness is that he has also provided up with information about what happens after we reach that point in our lives. If you refer back to the chart above, you will see that unhappiness levels fall back down again after 50.
To draw another analogy, you might not want to have the root canal but at least you know when it will be over and how good you’ll feel after it’s done.
How can I prepare for this moment?
Blanchflower provides a lot of information about the age of peak unhappiness but almost none regarding what to do about this discovery. For the solution to this problem, we have to examine what makes people unhappy in the first place.
While unemployment, rising gas prices, and a poor economy are certainly factors in driving up unhappiness- there isn’t too much we can each individually do about those issues. Instead, let’s focus on forces within our control. The below graph is from the 2019 World Happiness Report.
Before jumping into the data I would like to point out the United States’ position on this list, no. 19, has dropped from no. 18 in 2018 which was a huge decline from no. 13 in 2017.
Essentially, the U.S population is the least happy it’s ever been.
Now, on to the data. The factors used in the report to breakdown “happiness” are indicated by the various colored bars you see across the chart.
- Dark purple correlated with a countries economic output as related to the number of people in the country.
- The pink bar represents the level of social support felt on average in the country.
- The orange bar depicts the average life span of individuals in the country.
- The yellow bar represents freedom in decision making in each country.
- The light blue bar references the generosity of the citizens in each country.
- The navy/ purple bar represents the mistrust of the government in each country.
And finally, the very light purple bar at the end must be explained by the creators of this report because they have the most insight on this metric: “Dystopia is an imaginary country that has the world’s least-happy people. The purpose in establishing Dystopia is to have a benchmark against which all countries can be favorably compared (no country performs more poorly than Dystopia) in terms of each of the six key variables, thus allowing each sub-bar to be of positive (or zero, in six instances) width. The lowest scores observed for the six key variables, therefore, characterize Dystopia.” -World Happiness Report
Happiness elements within your control
From the above report, we get a really good overview of what exactly it is that makes a person (or an entire population of people) happy.
Social support is essentially the most important factor in happiness. Those with strong support from peers and close relationships with their community report being up to 4x happier than those without these connections.
Average life span was another strong indicator of happiness and while you might not be able to control your destiny, you can do your part to ensure you live a long life. Not only does eating well and exercising make you feel better right now, but it will also contribute to your prolonged lifetime of happiness.
Freedom in decision making was a very high element of happiness in the countries that reported feeling it. This means that the countries at the top of the happiness chart all felt a moderate-to-high degree of choice freedom. The power to make decisions is often swept under the rug but can cause extreme unhappiness if it doesn’t exist. Just ask anyone who has ever been micromanaged how happy they feel at work and how that affects their happiness at home.
Don’t let 47.2 get the best of you
The peak age of unhappiness is 47.2 and although you can’t change this for everyone, you can do (or refrain from doing) some very specific things to ensure this mid-life meltdown doesn’t hit you too hard.
Below is another graph from the World Happiness Report showcasing the direct correlation between certain activities and levels of happiness.
Notice that in 2013, as internet usage surged happiness plummeted. Additionally, as in-person social interaction fell, happiness followed suit. Lastly, and this should come as no surprise, as the hours of sleep per person per night trended down, the overall level of happiness felt went down with it.
Spend a lot less time on the internet and replace those missing hours with social activities involving actual other human beings. Get enough uninterrupted sleep each night and eat healthfully. Exercise regularly and surround yourself with social support. Get out of your comfort zone and find a community to be a part of- whether you’re into gaming, cooking, hooping, or working- there is a community of people just like you waiting to be found.
Most importantly, spend your life as if you lived in Norway (the happiest country on earth for the 3rd year in a row) or, if you’re really feeling down, take an extended vacation to Norway for your 47th birthday. Whatever you do, just remember that it gets better…way, way, better!