An investigation into the happiest time of our lives

My father regularly tells me that “school is the happiest time of your life”.

I am surprised he thinks it is motivational to tell me that. If he told me  that “life is all downhill from here”, it would sound more like a threat.

But I decided to investigate if he is right. Is school is the happiest time of my life? Just how much trouble am i in?

Objectively, school is definitely not the happiest time of my life. But I guess my father refers to “school-years”, rather than school itself. So i will give him the benefit of my doubt there…

I quickly discovered there is a happiness curve. Here is one of them, measuring “life satisfaction”.

This tells us that indeed we are happiest when we are young and we just get less and less happy for, say, 35 years, before we start getting happier again.

Could my father be right – is it largely downhill from here? And if so, why?

So the graph raised many questions that it answered. Here are the main questions:

  • What is life satisfaction, anyway?
  • Is the curve really so simple?
  • Why does happiness curve down so strongly in the middle years, and then go up again?
  • Is there any more detail about the curve before 20?

So what is life satisfaction, and is it happiness?

Turns out life satisfaction is a more objective evaluation of your life, whereas happiness is more an emotional judgment.

The best definition I read is “Happiness is an immediate, in-the-moment experience, whereas life satisfaction is happiness that exists when we think about our lives as a whole, looking at the big picture” (see link to article below)

Happiness as an emotion I can relate to, but ‘life satisfaction’ is a concept I struggle with at the moment.  It may be difficult to measure for a 17-year-old with no benchmark and who just wants less homework?

Is the happiness curve really so simple?

It turns out it is not. I would say the curve above is misleading. There is a lot of debate about this curve and there are many variations.

But, crucially, the experts do broadly seem to agree that there is a dip in the middle-age, and that happiness increases between 50 and 70, before dipping again as health issues become a bigger problem.

They all tend to agree that, in fact, it is the later years which are the happiest, and not the early years.

There are many articles and graphs, but this one seems to be a fair average of all the research:

Now at least I start to have the ammunition to contradict my father. School is not the happiest time of your life. But I can understand that he thinks so, from his perspective, as he is at the low point of the curve.

But let me try to answer my other questions before i conclude.

Why does happiness curve down so strongly in the middle years?

Again, there are many opinion on that, but it seems the key drivers are the pressures of career, relationships, family, mortgage etc.

Once adults reach 50, they have pretty much achieved everything they are going to achieve, and expectations are lower.

As the Economist articles says (see link below), the increasing happiness after 50 can be summed up as the “death of ambition, and birth of acceptance”. Not a hard sell of life after 50, but the conclusion is that it is our own expectations that define our happiness? That surely is good news…?

But apparently, for the happiness of our parents, we kids are also a factor

Once we leave home, happiness of our parents goes up. That really surprised me. I really thought we are so easy to live with…. ;o)

What about the curve before 20…?

This is the one question I could not really find a satisfactory answer to. The chart above starts at 15, and is similar to the UK research I found below.

It suggests that we are generally happier when we are young and at school, compared to middle-age. But it also suggests there may be a gender difference?

But there is also data which contradicts it. So difficult to conclude on that.

So finally I settled on my personal (not so deeply-researched) chart of happiness for a person below 20. And this is just any given day:

 

My conclusion of the happiest time of our lives:

The next time my father tells me that school is the happiest time of my life,  I will remind him that HIS happiness will improve when I leave home…and that he still has his 60’s to look forward to.

Love,

Luca

My sources of information:

http://straightstatistics.fullfact.org/article/searching-happiness-around-bend

https://positivepsychologyprogram.com/life-satisfaction/

http://www.economist.com/node/17722567