The U-bend of life - Why, beyond middle age, people get happier as they get older (Economist)

Seems to argue for more use of longevity drugs by everyone :wink:

ASK people how they feel about getting older, and they will probably reply in the same vein as Maurice Chevalier: “Old age isn’t so bad when you consider the alternative.” Stiffening joints, weakening muscles, fading eyesight and the clouding of memory, coupled with the modern world’s careless contempt for the old, seem a fearful prospect—better than death, perhaps, but not much. Yet mankind is wrong to dread ageing. Life is not a long slow decline from sunlit uplands towards the valley of death. It is, rather, a U-bend.

When people start out on adult life, they are, on average, pretty cheerful. Things go downhill from youth to middle age until they reach a nadir commonly known as the mid-life crisis. So far, so familiar. The surprising part happens after that. Although as people move towards old age they lose things they treasure—vitality, mental sharpness and looks—they also gain what people spend their lives pursuing: happiness.

Paywalled article:

Full article:


The article is behind a paywall. Did they state the reasons for the shape of this curve? I wonder if there is a biochemical aspect, like maybe the neurotransmitters become less efficient dealing with negative stimuli with time. Mine was below the horizontal axis for the better part of three decades, roughly from age 28-55, and then it eased up.


I heard a podcast about this. The “expert” said the effect was related to a commonly known human bias to be wasteful when faced with a surplus, while frugal when faced with a shortage. In this case, older people become more and more aware of being short of time, so they are more selective about how they spend time. They pick more and more rewarding uses of time. It “rings true”. My 84 yo mother is definitely happier now than when younger.


Thats seems to be a little bit along the line of “scarcity creates value” theory… a theory the anti-longevity people use to push back against the idea of longer, healthier lives. If lifespans were 200 years, then by this argument life loses a lot of value because there is too much of it…

But perhaps its just that people are prioritizing better towards more rewarding activities, and if thats the case there is no reason why people can’t keep doing that even over a longer lifespan.


Was it following the same people? A morbid explanation is that very unhappy people without treatment or have self-medicated have died from drug abuse, alcoholism, suicide, obesity, etc, which is skewing the result unfortunately.

Looks like it was just a one time survey in 2008, was it literally done in the middle of the financial crisis?

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My observation of friends and family over many decades is that genes highly regulate happiness.
I am not talking about mental illness such as depression. That can happen to anyone.
But, some people seem to be happy regardless of their circumstances and others are never happy regardless of their circumstances.
Fortunately, and I do think it’s the genes, I do not fit the U curve. I don’t ever remember a time when I was unhappy. My wife was always happy except for a period of postpartum depression. Yes, everyone has periods of unhappiness, such as when loved ones die, etc. but these should be temporary. I really don’t think you can fix unhappiness.
I could classify everyone I have ever known at work etc. into these two groups.
I am very skeptical that a psychoanalyst has ever changed an unhappy person into a happy person.
There seems to be some evidence that certain psychedelics have made a profound effect on some people and perhaps even turned them into happy people. But, the evidence is weak.


I suppose it depends why someone is unhappy. I wouldn’t be surprised if in many cases it’s some form of mental illness, it could be mild, and maladaptive thought patterns. In those cases pharmaceuticals and therapy could help. Or even exercise. Here’s a case of someone with mild depression and ‘doing everything’ right, and some anti-depressants simply improved their mood by a significant extent. Mental illness has a genetic component, and different types of mental illness tend to correlate with each other, like ADHD has high correlations with depression, anxiety, etc.

I agree. Some people aren’t happy unless they have something to moan about. I found it very obvious amongst a few work colleagues. Always start their conversations with something negative. Maybe they are the ones with the U shaped curve. As you say, likely it is genetic.
No way do I fit that U shape.