January 28, 2010

Is lifetime happiness greater when you peak earlier or later?

leSuppose that we have two people, Easton who reaches peak status earlier in life -- say at 25 -- and Landon who reaches peak status later at age 55. Their highest and lowest levels are the same, and they descend or ascend at the same rate. Let's say a level of 0 means the population average -- nothing above ordinary status -- and 30 is the maximum. So after getting through adolescence and becoming pretty independent by age 25, Easton starts at level 30 and declines by 1 each year until he gets to 0 at age 55. Landon starts at level 0 at age 25 and climbs by 1 each year until he reaches level 30 at age 55.

Assume that there are no other major differences, like the domain in which they achieve high status, and that they are physical and mental carbon copies of each other. So the only difference is going from level 30 to 0 vs. 0 to 30. Obviously both will feel great at level 30 and not so great at 0. Still, over the entire period from age 25 to 55, which one enjoys greater happiness, or is it the same?

I'll post my answer in a few days, but I'm interested in hearing others to see if there are any crucial things I've overlooked.


  1. Happiness is U-shaped over the life span. First, happiness declines steadily from young adulthood to middle age. IIRC, female unhappiness peaks at 43, and male unhappiness at 45. But then happiness steadily rebounds after the mid-life crisis, producing a Zen-like contentedness in old age.

    This probably just corresponds to the typical number of stressful responsibilities people have at each stage of life, but could also be related to reproductive drives-- i.e. neurotic competitiveness as a biological response to steadily falling fertility during the reproductive stage of life, and agreeable coolness when people enter their post-reproductive grandparent helper stage of life.

    Because of this I would say that it would be much better to be on your way up during the critical mid-life period, when sadness already looms as a larger latent threat.

    An additional reason for this choice is that people are more psychologically sensitive to losses than to deprivations. It's worse to lose something really good, than to never have experienced it at all.

    A case in point is ex-athletes and ex-celebrities, who more typically become depressed and broken. Peaking during young adulthood frames the rest of life as a comparative failure, instead of as an incremental success.

  2. OK, make that 42 and 44: "... age exhibits the U-shaped relationship with life satisfaction found in multivariate research employing large samples (with life satisfaction lowest at around 44 years for men and 42 years for women)".

  3. Another potential issue is that of the perceived passage of time. You may want to be happier earlier in life because time seems to go by slower then.

  4. I should clarify that I'm only talking about status-derived happiness... or you could pretend that status is the only source of happiness.

    The really existing U-shape of happiness may mean that people peak early as well as late, and we can set that aside and focus only on status-derived happiness.

  5. As a sidenote, I'm not sure that happiness is U-shaped. The GSS (HAPPY vs. AGE) shows that it's *inverted* U-shaped.

  6. Doesn't seem hard to answer. Easton spends his years from 25 to 55 in a steady decline while Landon spends the same years in a steady rise. I'd certainly rather be Landon.


  7. Later, you won't live with regret and how it used to be and spending the rest of your life trying to get back on top.


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