The saddest age of all is 47

Who's 47? Ben Affleck is 47

Sharon Kirkey, National Post 5 minute read January 17, 2020

The New Yorker has written of “the great sadness” of actor Ben Affleck, who is 47 years old. Alain Jocard/AFP via Getty Images

If you’re happy and you know it you obviously aren’t 47.

A new study pegs 47.2 as the age when people in the developed world have the least amount of happiness, and 48.2 in developing nations.

“Unhappiness is hill-shaped in age,” David Blanchflower, a professor of economics at Dartmouth College and former Bank of England policy maker, writes in work published this week by the National Bureau of Economic Research. “There is an unhappiness curve.”

In one paper, Blanchflower examines the relationship between unhappiness and age using data based on nearly 10 million people across 40 European countries and the United States.

You’re on the downward slope

He used 15 different measures of unhappiness: despair, anxiety, loneliness, sadness, strain, depression and bad nerves, phobias and panic, being downhearted, having restless sleep, lost confidence, tension, feeling left out and “thinking of yourself as a worthless person.”

He also explored responses to two more questions: was it hard to feel hopeful about the future of the world; and was life in their own country getting worse?

All showed a midlife dip around age 50.

“You’re past your prime, you’re past your peak. You’re on the downward slope of the physical side of things now,” said Dean Burnett, a British neuroscientist and author of The Happy Brain: The Science of Where Happiness Comes From and Why.

“It’s like the worst of both worlds.” People don’t have the fun of youth or the security of old age.

In a separate paper, “Is Happiness U-shaped Everywhere?”, Blanchflower, who is 67, explored age and subjective well-being in 132 countries.

After taking education as well as marital and workforce status into account, he found rich versus poor countries almost identical, with only a year difference between the peak age when people are the least happy (47.2 in the developed world, and 48.2 in developing countries).

The curve’s trajectory held true whether the median age was high or not or whether people lived in countries with higher life expectancies or not, he wrote.

It would appear that celebrities, too, are not immune. The New Yorker has written of “the great sadness” of Ben Affleck, the 47-year-old actor who, just days after opening up about his sobriety and recovery process on Instagram last October was spotted clearly intoxicated after a Halloween party. Friends and family have expressed concern for the actor.

On Twitter, Blanchflower said his new papers show a “surprising pattern in the data in 132 countries & numerous surveys & millions of people runs contrary to claims of some and earlier psychology literature that there is no such pattern.”

pensive sad looking woman with mug looking out window

“It’s about isolation, loneliness, lack of help and lack of community.” Getty Images

“The happiness curve is found in 132 countries. No myth,” he said, prompting Joe Wiesenthal, co-host of the Odd Lots podcast and “What’d You Miss?” on Bloomberg TV to respond: “I am looking forward to getting progressively less happy for the next 8 years of my life.”

“It looks like something that’s naturally occurring. You can get it in great apes,” Blanchflower said in an interview with the National Post. Monkeys live about 50 years. The trough in monkeys is about 30, he said.

Marriage and religion are on the decline in many places around the world, he said, and the most vulnerable faced with this midlife crisis are being hit hard. Real wages today in the U.K. are four-and-a-half per cent below what they were in 2008. Depression is increasing, and the depth of despair “looks to be disastrous,” said Blanchflower, author of Not Working: Where Have All the Good Jobs Gone?

“It’s about isolation, loneliness, lack of help and lack of community. We need to recognize that this is something real and then help people to get through it.”

Still, it’s a tricky one to pin down, said Burnett. Among other concerns, Burnett is wary of extrapolating too much from population-based estimates of happiness. But he said numerous factors might explain why happiness takes such a hit at midlife.

I am looking forward to getting progressively less happy for the next 8 years

When we’re younger we have a lot more reasons to be happy. “Children don’t have huge mortgages or jobs to hold down,” Burnett said. In most typical families, “You’re provided for; you’re taken care of. You’re with your family all the time, so you don’t have the loneliness and anxiety and isolation” that can come in later years.

At the other end of the curve, age tends to bring more financial security. “You have your house, your savings, your retirement plans, your family is grown up and self-sufficient,” Burnett said. It’s not necessarily that there is more happiness, but rather fewer things to stress out about.

Of course there’s the counter argument. “People have a lot less to look forward to now — climate problems, economic problems, political problems,” Burnett said. There’s more isolation and more physical frailty in old age.

The idea that happiness changes over time, or that there exist U-shaped curves in human mental states, isn’t a novel idea. The brain isn’t a static organ, Burnett has said. It adapts to what it’s presented with. And these are population averages. “There will be a lot of very substantial cultural and sociological elements that drives a population’s happiness in either direction,” he said.