Middle-Age Is Near

Tali Sharot says we are optimistic because we under-respond to bad news, an effect weakest for the middle-aged, explaining why they are more pessimistic:

People of all age groups changed their beliefs more in response to good news, and they discounted bad news. Even more surprising was the finding that kids and elderly people both showed more of a bias than college students. …

From about the time we are teenagers, our sense of happiness starts to decline, hitting rock bottom in our mid-40s. (Middle-age crisis, anyone?) Then our sense of happiness miraculously starts to go up again rapidly as we grow older. …

Andrew Oswald … controlled for people being born in better times, marital status, education, employment status, income: The age pattern persisted. Even more surprising, the pattern held strong even though Oswald did not control for physical health. … Oswald tested half a million people in 72 countries, in both developing and developed nations. He observed the same pattern across all parts of the globe and across sexes. …

While women reach the bottom of the happiness barrel at 38.6 years on average, men reach it more than a decade later — at 52.9 years [but 44.5 in the U.S.] … Americans have been growing less happy since 1900. In Europe, however, happiness has been increasing steadily since 1950, after 50 years of decline. (more)

OK, but that just pushes the question back: why do middle-aged folks respond the most to bad news? An obvious functional explanation comes to my mind: In the tradeoff between (near) beliefs that support good personal decisions and (far) beliefs that present a good image to others, personal decisions matter more for the middle-aged. In general, good personal decisions matter more for those who who are more dominant, more in the productive prime of their life, and more past the early ages where long term bonds are formed, and before elderly dependence on others.

This explains the later male unhappiness peak, the US/Europe trends matching their rising/falling world dominance, and also why pretty people are more selfish and conformist. After all, happy is far, and conformity is near.

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  • jhertzli

    It looks like people are least inclined to try to give a good impression when their children are at an age when they wouldn’t believe it anyway.

  • http://www.apuffofabsurdity.blogspot.com/ Marie

    I wonder if it might have to do with knowledge of evil and eventual acceptance.  I’m 47, and I sometimes feel like I know too much to be happy.  I’ve finally got my head around the corruption in the world – particularly of leaders – and it’s pretty depressing to think we’re not likely to get out of this mess.  BUT, the light at the end of the tunnel isn’t hope for a better future, but the burgeoning development of an acceptance that human nature is pretty corruptible, always has been, and it is what it is.  No use getting tied in knots over it all – it’s bigger than me.  

    Something like that.

    • http://overcomingbias.com RobinHanson

      How does that explain people getting happier after middle-age?

      • http://www.apuffofabsurdity.blogspot.com/ Marie

        I suggest it’s a Stoic acceptance of our nature that increases happiness after middle-age – a stance of recognizing that many big problems aren’t ours to solve, and developing a tranquility in the face of it all.  

  • lemmycaution

    These guys think that there is no real u-shaped dip in happiness:

    http://andrewgelman.com/movabletype/mlm/NCER_WpNo26Jul08v2.pdf

    People who fill out a survey year after year tend to do a better job and are more honest about their level of happiness. If you look only at the new survey subjects the U-shaped dip goes away.

    Also, the u-shape is not that pronounced in the raw data anyway.

    • http://overcomingbias.com RobinHanson

      That is only one of the possible explanations discussed in that paper. 

      • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ srdiamond

        Isn’t that response evasive, inasmuch as none of the data-driven explanations permitted the inference of a genuine U-shape?

        Skimming this data, it looks like it uses obsolete methods. “Happiness” researchers these days have much better methods, partly devised by Kahneman, for getting valid reports of hedonic states. But this conclusion could be hasty.

        It sounds reasonable that near-far follows a U shape, but it seems unlikely that this is the dominant trend. One problem is that there seems no recognized test of near-far inter-individual differences. In “You too have an optimal sentence length” ( http://tinyurl.com/7faf9nz ) I suggest than an educator’s test of global versus sequential cognitive style as a first approximation to far-near. ( http://tinyurl.com/2uxem )

        One conjecture, which goes out on quite a limb, is that using long sentences correlates with a far (or global) style. (I’m interested, on my blog or by email, in anyone’s results, the correlation with self concept of near versus far thinking, and if you really have the energy, your average sentence length.)

  • Tobias Schmidt

    There is some doubt as to whether there really is a U-shaped relationship between happiness and age: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0167268112000601

  • one of the dudes

    I think the answer is in this quote “people expect reality to make sense roughly in proportion to how personally responsible for manipulating it they feel”. Middle-aged men/women feel responsibility… from here: http://meteuphoric.wordpress.com/2012/07/29/responsibility-and-clicking/

  • http://entitledtoanopinion.wordpress.com TGGP

    Robert Wiblin argued at this very blog that the u-shaped curve of happiness is misleading: http://www.overcomingbias.com/2012/08/middle-aged-not-miserable-just-too-busy-to-answer-surveys.html