We've been told the happiest age is 33, but also 66 might be nice. Or maybe 23. With all these different answers, is it possible to find a formula for bliss? Well, new research is beginning to reveal the ages and places when and where we are most likely to be happy — and how they can be different for each person.
In an analysis of global data published last week in The Lancet, researchers were able to break down at what age people were at their happiest around the world. Their data included information from the 160-country Gallup poll as well as the English Longitudinal Study of Aging. Their results showed that our happiness levels change over time, but they change in different ways based on geographic location. For instance, those in high-income English-speaking countries (such as the U.S.) show a reliably U-shaped pattern of wellbeing, in which our happiness levels dip slightly around the 30-year mark, hit a low at about 45, and then start to rise up again around 50. But, this curve isn't universal: Those in Eastern Europe, Latin America, and the Caribbean all showed a downward trend, indicating that people are less satisfied as they get older.
Why is the relationship between wellbeing and age so different between regions? One reason is the discrepancy in healthcare quality, specifically levels of care for the elderly. But, there are other factors at work, too.
One of these important elements is gender: Women start off their adult lives happier than men, but end up less happy, according to a study from 2008. To learn this, researchers matched up aspiration data taken between 1978 and 2003 with happiness data taken between 1972 and 2005. The results showed that while women tend to accomplish their "family and material goals" (such as having a child and owning a car) earlier in life, men are more likely to fulfill these aspirations later in life. The authors suggest that this, coupled with the trend of women getting married earlier in life than men, could be responsible for the flip in happiness levels.
Money is another point of contention. No, it can't buy you love — but it may not be the root of all evil, either. The truth is somewhere between the Beatles wisdom and the Bible wisdom: One study, published in 2010, suggests that in the U.S., salary amount does seem to correlate with happiness levels, but only up to a point. While happiness increases as salary increases above poverty, once you hit about $75,000 per year, happiness plateaus. Any additional increases in salary don't have much effect on our emotional wellbeing.
All of this suggests something that might be kind of obvious: We are happiest when we get the things we really want in life — material, emotional, physical, and spiritual. But, we can accomplish many of those things at any age, which might explain the many "happiest" ages. Perhaps a more attainable and sustainable goal is to to find what our triggers for happiness are, and make those a priority when we can. But, these studies also suggest that those triggers may change over time — and, that's okay too. Our happiest age might be when we finally realize what makes us happy, and just go for it.