If you want to be happy, focus on health, relationships, simple pleasures and achieving a sense of control of your well-being, according to a survey of more than 4,000 adults age 35+ released today by the AARP. The study looks at how happiness changes over time and how age impacts the factors that are most important to well-being.
The survey confirmed two decades of research suggesting that happiness is U-shaped over the life cycle: It peaks in one's 20s and begins to decline, bottoming out in the mid-to-late 40s and rising again in old age. A study by David Blanchflower and Andrew Oswald, leading researchers in the field of subjective well-being, found that after controlling for factors such as income, education and marital status, "happiness bottoms at age 49 for American males and 45 for American females, and ages 44 and 43 respectively for male and female Europeans." (The AARP study found people hit bottom between age 51 and 55.)
This finding is likely to elicit a chorus of "well, duh!" from people in their 40s and 50s with stressful jobs, mortgages to pay and a couple of kids to get through college. But Oswald and Branchflower also suggest that happiness may bottom in midlife because people come to terms with failed dreams; in his 40s or early 50s, the unsuccessful Hollywood actor finally acknowledges that his day job is his real job:
"...individuals learn to adapt to their strengths and weaknesses, and in mid-life quell the infeasible aspirations of their youth," write Oswald and Branchflower.
Meanwhile, among older people "a kind of comparison process is at work: I have seen school-friends die and come eventually to value my blessings during my remaining years," Oswald and Branchflower write. They also have more time to spend on two factors that are key to happiness: friendships and simple pleasures.
So who is happy? The AARP study found women tend to be slightly happier than men; people who are married or in a relationship are happier than singles and never-marrieds; and people who are retired or currently employed are significantly happier than people not employed for pay. Education also helps: Just 23 percent of people with a post-graduate degree rated themselves "not too happy" compared to 37 percent of those with only a high school degree.
Check out the slideshow below for eight factors that contribute most to happiness, according to the AARP study.