Economists who study happiness--yes there are such folks out there--have found that happiness (or, as they define it, satisfaction with life) is high when we're 16 years old then drops off into a U-shaped curve that doesn't peak again until we're nearly 50 years old. For many of us who are parents, 50 coincides with the dreaded unhappiness of the suddenly empty nest. So what gives?
That's a point a Freakonomics program called No Stupid Questions, posed in its discussion of happiness and when we feel the best about our lives. You can read (or listen to the podcast of) that discussion for yourself and delight in its quirky good humor. Or you can scroll through some of the highlights I've picked out. The dialogue is between Stephen Dubner, who wrote Freakonomics, and Angela Duckworth, a psychologist. Here are some highlights:
The Empty Nest effect:
DUCKWORTH: ...., one of the findings from marriage research is that so many married couples with children fear the empty-nest syndrome. But actually, on average, people tend to be happier once they’ve sort of gotten over the initial crying of your last kid being dropped off to college. I think there are other explanations, though.
Why our young adult and 20- and 30-something kids are not as happy as we think they should be:
DUBNER: Are you suggesting — and I think there is research that suggests this — that young people are unrealistically optimistic? And even if the answer to that is yes, can you really say that it is unwise, because maybe one of the things that you need a surplus of when you’re starting out is optimism, because in fact, it can be hard.
DUCKWORTH: There is a psychologist who I love named Don Moore. He’s a judgment and decision-making scientist. And he believes that not only the young, but people of all ages, can be recklessly optimistic. And he thinks that this overconfidence is actually a problem. ...
I think that these high aspirations that young people have — rose-tinted movies in their head about what their wedding is going to be like, and how their children are going to be beautiful and perfect, and all these projections into the future — which are probably a little naive. I think you could ask the question whether they’re really unwise or not. I do think that if you reach higher, you’ll get farther, but you might be less happy doing it. .......
And there is this gap between what we are achieving and our aspirations, not because we’re achieving less. We’re probably achieving more. I’m mean, we’re learning more. We’re having, in some cases, higher-quality experiences. But our aspirations are growing faster than our objective achievements.
The angst young adults feel as they become independent
DUCKWORTH: Yeah, I think what teenagers experience is actually, high highs and low lows. And there’s a lot of scientific evidence for that, too. I’m a university professor, so I see lots of 18- to 22-year-olds who have their fair share of angst. And they are experiencing the decrease in happiness. They have memories of being carefree children. And I think that downward slope, my guess is, is feeling the difference between what it was and what it is today.
We’re very sensitive to changes. And to feel that everything was so simple then, and that you could eat an ice cream cone without guilt. They’re all of a sudden burdened with the weighty responsibilities of adulthood – their first career choices, their first disappointments professionally, or maybe major ones romantically. And when you’re sad it’s really hard to be convinced that you’ll ever not be sad. I like to tell young people who are in emotional turmoil, or experiencing the decrease in their emotional well-being, that life is long and that they won’t feel exactly this way forever.
Is schadenfreude the reason we're happier as we hit the higher age numbers?
DUBNER: [Some researchers]...suggest that one potential reason for the upswing in happiness around midlife is that you’ve seen people that you grew up with having really bad fortune, dying and whatnot. As you said, your gratitude may start to kick in a little bit more.
DUCKWORTH: I mean, the cynical interpretation of that is it’s all downward social comparison. You look at people who, “Oh, my gosh, I can’t believe that happened.” And that somehow makes you feel better. I mean, just having some perspective, right? .... The wide-angle lens on life that allows you to appreciate a good cup of coffee and, wow, nothing went wrong today.
DUBNER: Wow. You really have lowered your expectations, haven’t you?
DUCKWORTH: I guess that’s why I’m so happy.
DUBNER: .... How would you suggest people try to get rid of the things that make them unhappy and increase the ones that work?
DUCKWORTH: ...one of the most reliable interventions to increase happiness is called the “three blessings exercise.” And you simply think of three good things that happened, usually in the last 24 hours. And you rattle them off. I’ve gotten so good at it. I can do it usually in 10 or 15 seconds: Lucy, Amanda, the avocado was ripe.
DUBNER: Wait. Just naming your children fulfills the three? That’s what you’re saying?
DUCKWORTH: I know you’re going to say that’s a cheat, or how is that possible? But when I bring my kids to mind, I’m like, “Lucy’s healthy, Amanda finished her midterms.” I mentioned the avocado, I don’t want to put that on the same level as my children. But it was a miracle of God that the avocado was actually not too ripe and not underripe.
photos: Maia Lemov