In the last two decades, economists and other social scientists found a fascinating pattern when they studied well-being and satisfaction with life across the lifespan. These studies have become known as the “U-bend” research because of the U-shaped pattern that has been found again and again in many studies involving hundreds of thousands of subjects from many countries around the world, ranging in age from early 20s to the late 80s (and, in some cases, even in apes!).
Our sense of well-being starts out high in young adulthood: young adults see life as good, and report high life satisfaction. That feeling declines through the thirties and forties, until it reaches its lowest level around age 50—the “sandwich years,” when we are dealing with multiple roles, including caring for children and helping aging parents, while also navigating careers and social obligations. However, after that—in a surprise to many—the studies found that our level of wellbeing goes up, and keeps going up well into our eighties.
Since the U-Bend has also been found in primates, some of this pattern might be biologically based. But, for humans, research also suggests that having fewer years left to live may help us focus on those aspects of life that are most meaningful—like our relationships—and to live in the “now” and be more grateful for life’s simpler pleasures. Perhaps that is why elders have been found to be more forgiving, and better able to control their emotions than younger people.
This research is still relatively unknown to the public, but should be made available to counter the stigma attached to aging in our society. Which, paradoxically, may help some of us midlifers too: having something to look forward to in older age might help us feel better about those years at the lower end of the well-being scale.