the U-shaped happiness pattern

Every Valentine’s Day Daniel Jones reaches for an uber-comment on the human condition for the New York Times’ “Modern Love” column. (Full disclosure: this is the first part of the Sunday paper I turn to.) This year’s springboard was a new study of happiness patterns conducted by researchers from the University of Warwick and Dartmouth College. After analyzing data on 2 million people from 80 nations, the study found a extraordinarily consistent pattern: whether rich or poor, single or married, fertile or childless, people were most miserable in middle age and happiest at the beginnings and ends of their lives.


“What of all this elderly joy?” Jones mused, rummaging through the more than 10,000 essays that have come his way since he started editing the column. “Very few of those, to be sure, came from writers over 70. But the essays I have received from that age group support the study’s findings: most convey a sincere happiness with life and marriage.” Jones cites at length a poignant passage from 87-year-old Sue Ransohoff from Cincinnati, which reached him July and mentions serious illness and grievous loss:


“This happiness crept up on us, or we came down with it, in the last two or three years, and has little to do with our physical situations, which are so-so,” writes Ransohoff. “So what’s to be happy about? We have passed through the rough stages, where we battled bitterly about where to go, what to do, whom to do it with. I’ve given up being depressed and having migraines; Jerry [her 90-year-old husband] has given up drinking too much and having temper tantrums. We know this isn’t going to last forever; at some point the other shoe will drop. But for now it’s delightful to have this special ‘coda’ to our lives.”


As Jones points out, the awareness that time is fleeting clearly contributed to Ransohoff’s attitude. But it’s rooted in satisfaction at having come through difficult times and the pleasures of perspective. “Perhaps people somehow learn to count their blessings,” surmises Andrew Oswald, an economist at the University of Warwick. In midlife we confront dreams shelved, roads not taken, the disquieting fact that days lived outnumber those to come. But in late life, it seems, we make our peace with the life we lived — and this brings joy.

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