There really is such a thing as a midlife crisis. But don’t worry, it doesn’t last.
Research shows that satisfaction with life follows a U-shape—gradually falling from early adulthood and reaching a low point around the ages of 40 to 42. But it then reverses direction and keeps rising to the age of 70.
A new study, published in the Economic Journal, that followed more than 50,000 adults through their lives, offers evidence for a midlife low in human happiness and wellbeing. The findings show there really is a kind of midlife “crisis” in people’s feelings of satisfaction with their lives.
The idea of U-shaped wellbeing over much of the human lifespan is not a new one. Indeed, this pattern has been documented for a large number of countries using cross-sectional data—that is data covering different people at a point in time. But until now, researchers have not been able to replicate this pattern with genuinely longitudinal data—data on the same people observed over time.
For the new study, Andrew Oswald of the University of Warwick and colleagues at the University of Queensland analyzed four different data sets covering three countries—Australia, Britain, and Germany. Collectively, these datasets track the lives of tens of thousands of individuals over time. The primary outcome of interest was happiness and well-being, which was measured using a conventional life satisfaction questionnaire asking individuals to indicate how satisfied they are with their lives.
The authors propose a novel longitudinal test of a U-shape in wellbeing. The test is based on a simple mathematical fact from school calculus: that the derivative of a quadratic function is linear. This implies that it is possible to test for a U-shape in life satisfaction by examining the change in life satisfaction.
Applying the test to the data (rather than examining how levels of life satisfaction vary across different people, as it is usually done), the authors investigated the within-person changes in life satisfaction, and documented how these changes evolved over time.
This emphasis on following the changes in life satisfaction in the same people is important, the researchers say, because it implies that any results consistent with a U-shape in wellbeing can’t be due to a fluke or to differences from one individual to another. They must stem instead from changes through time in the quality of the lives of these individuals.