The happiness boom

The happiness boom

William Watson ê¢__‘Ô¢ The happiness boom approaches

William Watson

Citizen Special

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

If you weren’t on Mars last week, you will have heard that the latest census data show that Canada’s population continues to age rapidly. Between 2001 and 2006 the median age rose 1.9 years, to 39.5. (If you lined up all Canadians by age, the person exactly in the middle would be 39 years, six months old.) The median may be on its way to 44 years by 2031.

Lots of implications of Canada’s greying were talked about last week except what may be the most interesting — namely, the possibility of a widespread outbreak of happiness.

Funnily enough, happiness is a big research area in economics, the “dismal” science. Two well-known economists, David Blanchflower of Dartmouth University in New Hampshire and Andrew Oswald of Warwick University in England, have just published a paper asking whether happiness is “U-shaped over the life cycle?”

By this they mean: If you graphed people’s happiness, with happiness on the vertical axis and their age on the horizontal axis, would the curve first fall and then rise, forming a U?

Their provocative answer: Yes. People are happier both earlier and later in life, but the curve of happiness dips in the middle years. When does it bottom out? For American men: at 55.9 years of age. For American women: 45.1 years. For European men and women: 44.1 years and 42.6 years, respectively.

It’s not clear why there’s a bigger difference between men and women in the U.S. or why American men take longer than European men to get out of their middle-years funk. But the data do suggest that after a mid-life dip skies generally begin to look bluer. Blanchflower and Oswald don’t have numbers for Canada, but their study summarizes surveys that involved some 500,000 respondents from 1974 through 2004 in the U.S. and 1975 to 1998 in Europe. As we usually think of ourselves as being something of a combination of Americans and Europeans, the same broad patterns presumably apply to us.

Drawing inferences about happiness from opinion surveys is actually quite difficult. The question (in the U.S.) is simple enough: “Taken all together, how would you say things are these days — would you say that you are very happy, pretty happy, or not too happy?” (The European question is slightly different.) But if you find that older folk are generally happier, is that because they’re older and happiness really is U-shaped or is it because they’re from a generation or cohort that throughout its life was happier than younger people are today? Using more than 30 years of data allows Blanchflower and Oswald to test these generational or “cohort” effects. They find that cohorts do differ.

In the U.S., looking at people by the decade of their birth, the general level of happiness has been declining more or less steadily since 1900. In Europe, by contrast, it bottomed out with the first baby-boomers and has been rising since. Given Europe’s horrible mid-20th century, maybe that’s not surprising.

Despite these cohort effects, however, happiness is still U-shaped. How come? The explanations can’t be income or marriage or the number of children you have because Blanchflower and Oswald control statistically for these differences in people when estimating the age-happiness relationship. (In general, people with more money and more children are happier and so are married people.)

The economists aren’t philosophers or psychologists so they can’t really say. But they offer a couple of suggestions. Maybe we get wiser: “Individuals learn to adapt to their strengths and weaknesses and in mid-life quell the infeasible aspirations of their youth.” Or “cheerful people may live systematically longer than the miserable,” though in the middle years most miserable people haven’t died yet, so that isn’t very persuasive.

Or, finally, people may begin to appreciate their good fortune: We “have seen school friends die and come eventually” to value our blessings.

Other possible explanations come to mind. Swift or Twain might have argued that an increase in perceived well-being is merely a symptom of declining mental faculties. Parents might argue that the mid-to late-40s is when many people’s kids leave their sullen teen years. Or leave, period! Of course, a truly economic explanation would be scarcity: realizing we have less and less of life left, we value it more and more.

Whatever the reason for the curve of happiness’s U shape, it’s comforting to think that as Canada’s population ages over the next two or three decades, average happiness will rise.

William Watson teaches economics at McGill University.

ê_Ô© The Ottawa Citizen 2007