Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The Happiness of People and Countries: The U-Bend of Life

There were two recent articles in ”The Economist” dealing with happiness. One addressed it at the individual level and the other provides data on various nations. It seems that sociologists and psychologists, and even economists, all are beginning to feel they can say something quantitative about happiness. At some point one should recall the adage: “there are lies, damned lies, and statistics.” However, these findings have the ring of truth. As someone well-ripened by time, but enjoying every day of inexorable decrepitude, the results presented come as no great shock. Those spinning their wheels as rambunctious youths might find a surprise or two here.

As far back as we can recall youth was figured to be the time of peak happiness, not so much because it was that great, but old age, as a time of increasing infirmity and loss of capability, was assumed to be much worse. Over the last few decades social scientists have begun to develop a much different picture.

This article provides us with the following chart.

The phrase “U-Bend of Life” is applied. The data is from the U.S., but it appears to be universal.
“It appears all over the world. David Blanchflower, professor of economics at Dartmouth College, and Mr Oswald looked at the figures for 72 countries. The nadir varies among countries—Ukrainians, at the top of the range, are at their most miserable at 62, and Swiss, at the bottom, at 35—but in the great majority of countries people are at their unhappiest in their 40s and early 50s. The global average is 46.”

“One paper, published this year by Arthur Stone, Joseph Schwartz and Joan Broderick of Stony Brook University, and Angus Deaton of Princeton, breaks well-being down into positive and negative feelings and looks at how the experience of those emotions varies through life. Enjoyment and happiness dip in middle age, then pick up; stress rises during the early 20s, then falls sharply; worry peaks in middle age, and falls sharply thereafter; anger declines throughout life; sadness rises slightly in middle age, and falls thereafter.”

“Turn the question upside down, and the pattern still appears. When the British Labour Force Survey asks people whether they are depressed, the U-bend becomes an arc, peaking at 46.”
The author lists objections to this straightforward interpretation by those who believe that external forces, such as increased wealth, are responsible for this result. My favorite is the suggestion that the bend in the curve is related to the time in life when your children leave home (just kidding!). The author will have none of this.
“Another possible explanation is that unhappy people die early. It is hard to establish whether that is true or not; but, given that death in middle age is fairly rare, it would explain only a little of the phenomenon. Perhaps the U-bend is merely an expression of the effect of external circumstances. After all, common factors affect people at different stages of the life-cycle. People in their 40s, for instance, often have teenage children. Could the misery of the middle-aged be the consequence of sharing space with angry adolescents? And older people tend to be richer. Could their relative contentment be the result of their piles of cash?”

“The answer, it turns out, is no: control for cash, employment status and children, and the U-bend is still there. So the growing happiness that follows middle-aged misery must be the result not of external circumstances but of internal changes.”
And what might the internal changes be?

“People, studies show, behave differently at different ages. Older people have fewer rows and come up with better solutions to conflict. They are better at controlling their emotions, better at accepting misfortune and less prone to anger. In one study, for instance, subjects were asked to listen to recordings of people supposedly saying disparaging things about them. Older and younger people were similarly saddened, but older people less angry and less inclined to pass judgment, taking the view, as one put it, that ‘you can’t please all the people all the time’.”

Youth would appear to be a time of great ambition and constant striving. One enters the competition full of hope and enthusiasm and views life with excitement. Such a start is inevitably overcome by disappointment and stress related to the knowledge of one’s limitations. That is what middle age is all about. At some point most people come to accept themselves and their state in life and look around to notice that things aren’t all that bad. One can begin to channel energy into more satisfying directions. The author provides a few interesting quotes from famous people related to this phenomenon.
“The academics quoted lyrics written by Pete Townshend of The Who when he was 20: ‘Things they do look awful cold / Hope I die before I get old’. They pointed out that Mr Townshend, having passed his 60th birthday, was writing a blog that glowed with good humour.”

“Perhaps acceptance of ageing itself is a source of relief. ‘How pleasant is the day’, observed William James, an American philosopher, ‘when we give up striving to be young—or slender’.”
The author leaves us with another encouraging note on aging and happiness.
“Happiness doesn’t just make people happy—it also makes them healthier. John Weinman, professor of psychiatry at King’s College London, monitored the stress levels of a group of volunteers and then inflicted small wounds on them. The wounds of the least stressed healed twice as fast as those of the most stressed. At Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Sheldon Cohen infected people with cold and flu viruses. He found that happier types were less likely to catch the virus, and showed fewer symptoms of illness when they did. So although old people tend to be less healthy than younger ones, their cheerfulness may help counteract their crumbliness.”
One has to be impressed by anyone who can make aging look beneficial. Hats off to “The Economist.” As of today it is my favorite magazine.

The second article takes us into the realm of national happiness. Nations have personalities too. Consider the following chart.

“Although richer countries are clearly happier, the correlation is not perfect, which suggests that other, presumably cultural, factors are at work. Western Europeans and North Americans bunch pretty closely together, though there are some anomalies, such as the surprisingly gloomy Portuguese. Asians tend to be somewhat less happy than their income would suggest, and Scandinavians a little more so. Hong Kong and Denmark, for instance, have similar income per person, at purchasing-power parity; but Hong Kong’s average life satisfaction is 5.5 on a 10-point scale, and Denmark’s is 8. Latin Americans are cheerful, the ex-Soviet Union spectacularly miserable, and the saddest place in the world, relative to its income per person, is Bulgaria.”
The author chose The Rich, the Poor and Bulgaria as the title of the piece.

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