Misery really does love company. How else to explain our endless fascination with studies about why it's so much easier to worry than be happy? In the last few years, researchers have provided us with all manner of mood-related news, much of which has gotten more ink than civil unrest in Third World countries (and no wonder; that stuff is really depressing).
We've learned from Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert, author of "Stumbling on Happiness," that there's little correlation between money and personal fulfillment (unless it lifts someone out of poverty). We've learned, courtesy of a survey called the World Database of Happiness, that Danes are less gloomy than other Europeans because their expectations tend to be lower. And despite the fact that census figures show that in the U.S., married people are outnumbered by singles, the notion that marriage makes people happier is still considered conventional wisdom. Along the same conventional lines, a Pew Research Center study from 2006 found that going to church, voting Republican and, uh, being white provided extra boosts in the contentment department.
Working with data from 2 million people in 80 countries, American and British researchers found that feelings of psychological well-being follow a U-shaped pattern, meaning that most people feel happy when they're young and get progressively less so as they head into their fifth decade. The average age for hitting bottom emotionally was 44, with women reaching their low point around 40 and men around 50. Interestingly, the researchers found, those who remain healthy after 70 are likely to see their happiness levels return to the levels of most 20-year-olds.
Andrew Oswald of the University of Warwick, who coauthored the study with Dartmouth College's David Blanchflower, offers up a number of theories as to why middle age can feel as grim as the Middle Ages. "One possibility is that individuals learn to adapt to their strengths and weaknesses and in midlife quell their infeasible aspirations," Oswald stated in a news release. "Another possibility is that cheerful people live systematically longer. A third possibility is that a kind of comparison process is at work in which people have seen similar-aged peers die and value more their own remaining years. Perhaps people somehow learn to count their blessings."
Am I crazy (or, more likely, experiencing the edges of middle-age grouchiness) or is this sciencey-speak for what we can figure out on our own? Doesn't Oswald mean that part of getting older is recognizing that you're never going to be a rock star/compete in the Olympics/marry a supermodel, and that this knowledge becomes less of a bummer as the years go by and you're just glad not to be dead?
What is noteworthy and, I dare say, just a tiny bit groundbreaking in this study is that the researchers aren't blaming external factors for people's discontent. Instead of telling us we're gloomy because we haven't walked down the aisle or seriously considered voting for Mitt Romney, they seem to be suggesting that this is simply the way things are.
"Some people suffer more than others, but in our data, the average effect is large," Oswald said in the release. "It happens to men and women, to single and married people, to rich and poor and to those with and without children."
That's a pretty radical concept for those of us in a post-Prozac, post-Dr. Phil world, where feeling bad is generally assumed to be an occasion for strenuous (or at least expensive) efforts toward self-improvement. As we've been reminded recently by the new HBO series "In Treatment," which takes place in a psychotherapist's office and features a different analysand for every day of the week, problems of the soul are generally perceived to be highly individualized and fundamentally solvable.
But what if we were to enter a therapist's office and be told that feeling depressed is just a natural part of the aging process, the psychological equivalent of extra waistline fat or arthritic knees? Moreover, what if your typical 44-year-old American was told that his depression, while probably not wholly unrelated to some trauma dating back to toddlerhood, is ultimately not all that different from that of 44-year-olds in most of the world?
He would, in all likelihood, get a second opinion (or a sports car), but something tells me he might also accomplish the next best thing to actually feeling good: He might feel less depressed about being depressed. That's not a bad way to wait out the years until your 70th birthday.