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Happiness, stress, and age: how the U curve varies across people and places

Abstract

There is now much evidence for a remarkably consistent relationship between age and happiness—“the U curve.” In this paper, we present the first analysis that explores why some nations—and people within them—have turning points that are much earlier while others turn much later. Contributing to past studies, we analyzed the relationship within 46 individual countries, as well as how it varied depending on where in the well-being distribution individuals are, and extended the analysis to stress. The U-shaped relationship between age and happiness held in 44 of the 46 countries, and a reverse U held for stress in almost as many. Our most novel finding is that the timing of the turn varies depending on average country-level happiness and on individuals’ position in the well-being distribution. Our findings highlight the consistency of the relationship as well as how its timing varies across people and places.

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Notes

  1. Estimates for ordered logit models do not modify our main findings; for a discussion of the use of OLS regressions to analyze ordinal well-being variables, see Van Praag and Ferrer-i-Carbonell (2007).

  2. The two countries where the U curve does not hold are Mexico and South Africa.

  3. Data was not found for Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Greece, Ireland, Kosovo, and Portugal.

  4. The five countries where the U curve does not hold are Brazil, Chile, Colombia, India, and Montenegro.

  5. The 12 countries where the stress curve does not hold are Austria, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, Kosovo, Netherlands, Poland, Russia, Slovenia, and Sweden.

  6. We thank Danny Blanchflower for suggesting this strategy and for sharing his results on Europe with us.

  7. For brevity, we provide the figures for the USA only, given that it departs from the norm. As a robustness check, we replicated the exercise based on GSS data for 1972–1998, thus for a different time period and data set, and found again that the U curve was much steeper for the unmarried than the married. The U is less steep in the GSS data due to the bunching of responses on the median of a 3-point scale. Results are available from the authors.

  8. Our findings without controls for the USA stand in stark contrast with those of Glenn (2009). He criticizes Blanchflower and Oswald for including any controls at all, and using GSS data finds no U shape when only controlling for age cohorts. Glenn argues that controlling for married people, who are happier and select into marriage, drives the U, but our results suggest that is not the full story.

  9. Indeed, Guven et al. (forthcoming), using panel data for Germany, find that the probability of divorce is highest when there are asymmetries in happiness levels in marriages.

  10. The finding holds for Europe whether or not we include co-habitators as married or not. In the US data, co-habitators are not labeled as a separate category and constitute a smaller proportion of the total than in Europe.

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Acknowledgments

They thank George Akerlof, Danny Blanchflower, and Andrew Oswald for very helpful comments, as well as three anonymous reviewers and Klaus Zimmermann and the editorial team at the Journal of Population Economics. We also thank Jonathan Rauch for providing many helpful citations from the psychology literature, as well as for many helpful conversations.

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Correspondence to Carol Graham.

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This study was funded by the endowment funds supporting Graham’s Leo Pasvolsky chair at Brookings. There are no conflicts of interest to report.

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The authors are, respectively, Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution and prospective DPhil student at the University of Oxford.

Responsible editor: Klaus F. Zimmermann

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Graham, C., Ruiz Pozuelo, J. Happiness, stress, and age: how the U curve varies across people and places. J Popul Econ 30, 225–264 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00148-016-0611-2

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  • DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/s00148-016-0611-2

Keywords

  • Life satisfaction
  • Stress
  • Health inequality

JEL Codes

  • D06
  • D6
  • I14