Stress and worry ebb, happiness grows after 50


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Imagine that life were a board game -- let’s call it, ‘Are We There Yet?’

The objective of the game -- ‘getting there’ -- could be to attain happiness and even, say, wisdom (a very new-age board game). It could also be to avoid the pitfalls of illness and despair and reach the end of a long and healthy life (a board game for the slightly more worry-prone).

No matter which objective you choose, the game will look about the same: According to a study published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, those two endpoints -- happiness and long life -- pretty much follow the same course. Happiness -- maybe even wisdom -- grows as you pass midlife and get closer to the end.


How’d they figure this out? In a 2008 survey underwritten by the Healthways Inc., the Gallup Organization asked 355,344 Americans from 18 to 84 not only to rate their general level of well-being but also the levels of happiness, enjoyment, stress, worry, sadness and anger they had felt the previous day. Respondents’ well-being showed a clear pattern across the age span: for men, happiness and enjoyment hit a low point, on average, somewhere in their 40s, and women’s nadir of happiness and enjoyment came between 50 and 53. From there, a significant upward turn began, and continued to improve into the octogenarian years.

There were lots of chutes and ladders along the way. Players -- er, respondents -- had to work their way past the heart-pounding peak of stress in their mid-20s, and endure declining but continued stress through their 30s and 40s. But after about 50, stress took a deep plunge. High levels of worry threatened to impede forward progress for men in the 46-49 years and peak for women at 50-53, but then declined steadily. Anger burned hottest at 18-21, stayed pretty high into the early 40s, when a sudden explosion of rage could cause a loss of turn. Then, it steadily declined.

We all know women live longer, but this survey makes clear it’s a little harder on them than it is on men. At all ages, their reported levels of ‘enjoyment’ are lower than mens’. At all ages, their levels of stress and worry are significantly higher than those of men. At all ages, their reported sadness is higher than mens’. Only their levels of anger were the equal of mens’ throughout the lifespan.

Want a personal tour of the booming landscape of happiness? You’ll want to check out Harvard’s ‘Happier’ guru. And have a look at this site.

--Melissa Healy