Why Does Happiness Drop in Mid-Life, and What Can Be Done About It?
Mid-life can be a notoriously difficult time of transition, with many physical and lifestyle changes
Dr Mark Bubbs urges that a holistic view of health is necessary, one that encompasses physical and mental health
What does happiness have to do with achieving your best health and performance in mid life? Why does it matter? Tackling complex problems, like weight gain or a chronic health condition, requires consistency and patience. They take time to resolve. Why? They require you to change behaviours in your life, such as what you eat, how much (and how intensely) you move, how much you sleep, and so on. These behaviours are much more deeply-rooted than you may think, which is why you can’t always change them overnight. Behaviour change is difficult.
To make the road a little smoother and give you the greatest odds of staying on track in the long run, you need the right mindset. You need the right attitude to empower your effort; you need the right thoughts to trigger the desired actions. Happiness helps ignite the process. In fact, performance psychologists in elite sport have turned the old adage of ‘achieve success and happiness will follow’ on its head, with a new model of aiming for happiness first, in order to propel behaviour change and then success.
The mid-life U-shaped happiness curve
Dr David Blanchflower, Professor of Economics at Dartmouth University, and his team examined the wellbeing data in countries with respect to 15 measures of unhappiness – fatigue, sadness, strain, tension, anxiety, depression, sleeplessness, etc – and uncovered a U-shaped ‘happiness curve’.1
Happiness levels appear to start out very high in childhood and adolescence (not surprising), but after the age of 18, Blanchflower found happiness levels begin to decrease steadily until into mid-life. In fact, happiness levels appear to reach their lowest point between the ages of 41 to 47 years old in developed countries. Blanchflower found happiness levels steadily increase in your late 40s and continue to do so well into your 70s (thus the ‘U-shaped’ curve). Remarkably, the relationship held true even when researchers controlled for gender, education, marital status and social class.
While it’s nice to hear things will get better as you age, you probably don’t want to spend your 40s in the doldrums waiting for the fog to lift naturally in your late 40s. Does this really mean you’re destined for a decade of unhappiness? The good news is that happiness is a trainable skill, and the more skilled you become, the greater the likelihood it will propel you to higher performance in all aspects of your life.
Why does happiness dip in mid-life?
Why might happiness drop in mid-life? Blanchflower and his team offer a few possible explanations. The first is our inherent drive for ‘success’. Young and ambitious in your 20s and early 30s, you steamroll ahead motivated to achieve your career goals. No doubt this brings a sense of satisfaction and pride, but, ironically, the sensation doesn’t last very long. Researchers call this hedonic adaptation.2 Once you achieve your goal, the celebration is short-lived and your successes unconsciously move the goalposts forward. No matter what your level of success, you’re always looking up the ladder of achievement at what needs to be accomplished next (and you forget to look back in the rear-view mirror often enough to enjoy how far you’ve come).
Why is this problematic? Because the ‘happiness’, like the celebration from achievement, is short-lived. In fact, some people may even feel guilt or shame because they don’t feel happy as a result of their career and financial success; a sense of ungratefulness, which further exacerbates mid-life dissatisfaction.
The next possible explanation for low mid-life happiness comes down to expectations. When you’re young, the world is your oyster. You have the benefit of time and can look forward to achieving your ambitions. But life doesn’t always play out as you imagine it to. You may not achieve all your career goals. You may find the physical and emotional toll of caring for young children and ageing parents far more taxing than you ever imagined. It can take some time to come to terms with your new outlook on life. It’s not just the constant pursuit of achievement or expectations that can alter your world view, comparisons to friends or colleagues may also begin to sting as you age.
Comparison drives competition and, ironically, this appears to hinder your sense of satisfaction with your efforts. In your 40s, because you feel you have less ability to change the situation, it can erode your confidence and impact on your identity. There will always be someone fitter, wealthier or higher up the career ladder than you. This leads to a series of negative feedback loops in the brain, enhancing negative self-talk and thoughts, which can dampen your mood and zest for life.
Is happiness genetic?
You probably know a magnetic person – a colleague, coach or famous athlete or entertainer – whose mere presence energises the whole group. Are these people just the lucky ones? Is it possible to be a genetically happy person? It’s a great question; one scientists have explored. Genetics does appear to play a large role in your baseline happiness levels. A landmark research project called the Minnesota Twin Family Study, conducted from 1979 to 1999, followed identical and fraternal twins who were separated from their biological parents not long after birth and raised in different homes.3 The study is unique because it provides a glimpse into how genes versus environment impact key areas of
personality (including baseline happiness). When researchers assessed happiness, they found the happiness levels of identical twins were almost always exactly the same, despite the fact they were separated at birth. Results were not the same for fraternal twins, who do not share exactly the same DNA; they were found to have significantly different baseline happiness levels.
But genetics is only one part of the happiness equation. What else contributes? You might presume that the obvious external factors in your life, such as income, money, job status, social status, house, etc, were high on the list. Not quite. Material possessions aren’t nearly as strong a factor as you might think. A comparison of the richest people in America by Forbes magazine found the top 1 per cent of the country are only marginally happier than average. (Incredibly, about one third of the top 1 percent were actually less happy than average.) Money does matter to a certain point, though. External circumstances account for approximately one third of your happiness. What’s the last third of happiness? Your mindset.
Emotions run the show
You might think that you make decisions based on logic, but the best performance psychologists in the world are quick to point out this isn’t the case. Dr Peter Jensen, PhD, mental performance coach to countless Olympians says, ‘90 per cent of the decisions you make are based on emotion.’4 What effect is your mindset having on your physical health? What effect is your mindset having on sustaining your diet and exercise choices? What effect is your mindset having on your sleep, nutrition, movement, recovery and mental health?
Performance psychologists also call attention to the fact that there are very few things you can actually control. What can you control? It’s a very short list: attitude, actions, effort and thoughts. That’s all. Attitude, actions and effort are the ‘easiest’ to wrestle control over. Controlling your thoughts, however, is more challenging. Willpower and effort alone are not enough. You must create the right environment. This is where most people go wrong, they rely on brute force and relentless effort. It’s time to learn a better way.
The right mindset empowers you to take action and make yourself accountable for what you eat, how much you move and your lifestyle choices, like sleep, that impact not only how you look, feel and perform every day, but ultimately your happiness level. The great challenge in mid-life, when trying to control your emotions (and the thoughts that emerge as a result), are the major roadblocks, like always being ‘busy’, chronic high stress, lack of sleep and constant fatigue. All of these factors are strongly associated with lower mid-life happiness and they all compromise your mental health.
If you take a holistic view of low mood and depression, you realise a myriad of factors contribute to low mood – lack of sleep, high stress, poor glucose control, weight gain, chronic inflammation and lack of aerobic fitness. For example, higher blood glucose levels in mid-life can impact your mental health as much as your physical health. A study in Diabetes Care of over 4,000 people showed depressive symptoms were highly associated with higher fasting insulin levels – a biomarker of poor diet and metabolic health.8 (In fact, the authors specifically noted that antidepressant medications did not alter this association). In Scandinavia, researchers found a clear association between elevated HbA1c – a three-month average of blood sugar levels – with increased risk of depression.
These results highlight that poor diet, and the subsequent elevation in your blood sugar levels, creates a milieu where low mood and depression can take root. If your blood sugar levels are consistently high or if you’re overweight or unfit, it can also quickly lead to a chronic state of low-grade inflammation. New England Journal of Medicine recently published a review highlighting the strong connection between chronic inflammation and the development of depression, high blood pressure, pre-diabetes and most common chronic diseases. If you are overweight or obese (defined as a body mass index [BMI] of 30kg/m2 or more) in mid-life, you likely have some kind of chronic low-grade inflammation adversely impacting your mental state. When the internal inflammatory fires burn too intensely, they begin to erode both your physical and mental health.
Dr Marc Bubbs’ is the author of new book Peak 40: The New Science of Mid-Life Health for a Leaner, Stronger Body and a Sharper Mind
1. David Blanchflower, ‘Is Happiness U-shaped Everywhere? Age and Subjective Wellbeing in 132 Countries,’ National Bureau of Economic Research (January 2020), https://www.nber.org/papers/w26641.
2. Sonja Lyubomirsky, ‘Hedonic Adaptation to Positive and Negative Experiences,’ in The Oxford Handbook of Stress, Health, and Coping (January 2012), https://doi.org/10.1093/oxfordhb/9780195375343.013.0011.
3. William G. Iacono and Matt McGue, ‘Minnesota Twin Family Study,’ Twin Research 5, no. 5 (October 2002): 482–7, https://doi.org/10.1375/136905202320906327.
4. Dr Peter Jensen, ‘Sport Psychology, Energy Management & the Champion’s Mindset,’ interview by Dr Marc Bubbs, The Performance Nutrition Podcast, September 13, 2018, https://soundcloud.com/drbubbs/s2e35-sport-psychology-energy-management-the-champions-mindset-dr-peter-jensen.
5. F. P. Cappuccio et al., ‘Sleep Duration and All-Cause Mortality: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis of Prospective Studies,’ Sleep 33, no. 5 (2010), https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1365-2869.2008.00732.x.
6. Jacob A. Nota and Meredith E. Coles, ‘Duration and Timing of Sleep Are Associated with Repetitive Negative Thinking,’ Cognitive Therapy and Research 39, no. 2 (April 2015): 253–61, https://doi.org/10.1007/s10608-014-9651-7.
7. J. C. Felger and F. E. Lotrich, ‘Inflammatory Cytokines in Depression: Neurobiological Mechanisms and Therapeutic Implications,’ Neuroscience 246 (2013), https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neuroscience.2013.04.060.
8. Antti-Jussi Pyykk.nen et al., ‘Depressive Symptoms, Antidepressant Medication Use, and Insulin Resistance: The PPP-Botnia Study,’ Diabetes Care 34, no. 12 (December 2011): 2545–7, https://doi.org/10.2337/dc11-0107.
9. Markku Timonen et al., ‘Insulin Resistance and Depressive Symptoms in Young Adult Males: Findings from Finnish Military Conscripts,’ Psychosomatic Medicine 69, no. 8 (October 2007): 723–8, https://doi.org/10.1097/psy.0b013e318157ad2e.
10. The Emerging Risk Factors Collaboration, ‘Diabetes Mellitus, Fasting Glucose, and Risk of Cause-Specific Death,’ New England Journal of Medicine 364, no. 9 (March 2011): 829–41, https://doi.org/10.1056/nejmoa1008862.