At what age are people at their happiest? This seemingly simple question has been studied extensively over the past decades, but a definitive answer has long been elusive. A German research team has now shed light on the question in a comprehensive meta-analytic review.
One would think that the age at which most people are happiest is when they are young, look their best, have their strength and few if any disabilities and have the most to look forward to.
Yet, the researchers at Ruhr University at Bochum, basing their longitudinal study on 443 unique samples with a total of 460,902 participants, found a different answer. “We focused on changes in three central components of subjective well-being – life satisfaction, positive emotional states. and negative emotional states,” explained psychology Prof. Susanne Bücker, who initially worked on the study in Bochum and has since moved to Cologne.
She published the study in the journal Psychological Bulletin under the title “The development of subjective well-being across the life span: A meta-analytic review of longitudinal studies.”
Life satisfaction decreased between ages of 9-16
The findings show that life satisfaction decreased between the ages of nine and 16, then increased slightly until the age of 70, and then decreased once again until the age of 96. Positive emotional states showed a general decline from age nine to 94, while negative emotional states fluctuated slightly between ages nine and 22, then declined until age 60 and then increased once again. The authors identified greater median changes in positive and negative emotional states than in life satisfaction.
“Overall, she said, the study indicated a positive trend over a wide period of life, if we look at life satisfaction and negative emotional states. The researchers attribute the slight decline in life satisfaction between the ages of nine and 16 to – for example – changes to the body and to the social life that take place during puberty. Satisfaction rises again from young adulthood onwards. Positive feelings tend to decrease from childhood to late adulthood. In very late adulthood, all components of subjective well-being tended to worsen rather than improve.
“This could be related to the fact that in very old people, physical performance decreases, health often deteriorates, and social contacts diminish; not least because their peers pass away,” she speculated.
“The study highlights the need to consider and promote subjective well-being with its various components across the lifespan, as the authors of the study conclude. Their findings could provide significant guidance for the development of intervention programs, especially those aimed at maintaining or improving subjective well-being late in life.