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Why Some People Wait a Long Time to Be Happy

Why Some People Wait a Long Time to Be Happy

By Steven Butler


Because you have one more reason to count your blessings if you live in a stable, prosperous place.

By Steven Butler

When life sucks and you’re feelin’ blue … you just might have something to look forward to. We’re not taking that old religious stance about toiling now for joy in an angel-filled afterlife. No, a pile of social-science research has coughed up a persistent global pattern shaped like your favorite driving maneuver. That said, the payoff takes longer for some than for others.

According to the happiness U-curve, people who live in unhappy societies may have to wait a long time to cash in their happy chips.

Measures of happiness tank all over the world for about 20 years after people reach adulthood, but after that — for most, anyway — life brightens up and people get happier. Just not in places like Russia, the Czech Republic and Venezuela, says Carol Graham, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. In fact, the happiness U-curve generally stinks for poor countries, where people have to wait longer to find that happy sweet spot only to die young. “There is no justice,” says Graham.

Russia might be one of the worst cases. Residents of relatively happy and prosperous places, like Australia, the U.K. or Denmark, can look forward to the darkness of their 30s and early 40s turning brighter around the age of 44, and then they can enjoy the prospect of a long twilight of happy years. But pity the Russians. Life doesn’t turn happier there until age 77 — extra dismal, considering the life expectancy there is 71. Sure, Russia’s an extreme outlier. But there are other anomalies. You might expect that India — relatively unhappy, with a low life expectancy — might mimic the Russian experience. But it turns out that in India, life begins to brighten up at the tender age of 35. It’s middle-age burdens that come early.

Social scientists have found all kinds of tricky ways to ask people about happiness, but Dartmouth College economist David Blanchflower and his research partner, Andrew Oswald, found parallel proof in a survey that looked at the use of antidepressants among Europeans. Sure enough, it followed precisely an inverted U-curve through the unhappy years. “It doesn’t matter how you ask the question,” says Blanchflower, the answers come back the same, everywhere. “This is a basic fact about human existence,” he says.

Why should people everywhere, regardless of race, culture, religion or nationality, follow the same pattern through life? “The answer is that we don’t know,” says Blanchflower.


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