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In the Middle

Well, it’s official, middle age sucks. At least, that is what a recent study by Dartmouth Economics professor, David Blanchflower found. In his study for the National Bureau of Economic Research, Blanchflower examined the relationship between well-being and age and found significant evidence that it was U-shaped. To better understand the relationship between age and

Well, it’s official, middle age sucks. At least, that is what a recent study by Dartmouth Economics professor, David Blanchflower found. In his study for the National Bureau of Economic Research, Blanchflower examined the relationship between well-being and age and found significant evidence that it was U-shaped.

To better understand the relationship between age and well-being, Blanchflower examined data from 500,000 random samples of both Americans and Europeans and drew comparisons across 132 countries. He found the same thing across the board; well-being dips in middle age. This means that levels of happiness generally start out higher in one’s youth then decline as a person reaches middle age. Then happiness levels increase again as a person ages. The bottom line is that, on average, 47.2 years of age was the least happy time in a person’s life in developed countries. Undeveloped countries delayed peak unhappiness slightly, with a rock bottom age on the happiness scale of 48.2. This was true for both men and women regardless of economic status, marital status, and level of education.

Happiness is often thought of as one of those subjective, abstract things that means something different to everyone, but Blanchflower believes that is not the case. In fact, he believes that happiness is entirely quantifiable. Previous studies have reported that a person’s level of well-being is somewhat flat across their lifespan, though recent data shows something else entirely.

The bottom line is that happiness is largely affected by one’s age. Blanchflower suggests there are three possible causes for these mid-life crises, as well as reasons why people come out of them later in life. One possible explanation is that people learn to accept their strengths and weaknesses and give up on unreasonable expectations. Another reason people see a mid-life dip in happiness is that they see changes in life and eventually come to be grateful for what they have. Blanchflower states, “I have seen school-friends die and come eventually to value my blessings during my remaining years.” Last, it could be that people that are generally happy live longer, thus showing the increasing levels of life satisfaction in their later years.

The middle of a person’s lifespan is a time when they are faced with many responsibilities and challenges, including social, physical, and psychological changes. It is no wonder that middle-aged people are often called the “Sandwich Generation,” having to care for both their children as well as their parents. Though people in their middle years usually have a higher income than those that are young or those that are retired, they are strained with the financial demands of a mortgage, auto loans, and helping their children with college tuition. This leads to a sense that control in one’s life is extremely limited. Coupled with the beginnings of physical and cognitive decline, stress is at an all-time high.

Possible reasons for high levels of well-being for the young and old, versus the dip in middle-age, are the different levels of perceived stress and responsibility. The young have the perception of being seemingly invincible and have few responsibilities outside of themselves. In contrast, seniors generally have accepted things in the past and have come to enjoy simple things such as social interaction.

All is not lost, however, for those of us in our 40s and 50s. For one thing, we can expect an upward turn in our level of happiness, as Blanchflower showed with his extensive research. In addition, things such as exercise, stress management, social support, and intellectual stimulation can help us regain a sense of control and make us more resilient to life’s challenges. The bad news is that if you are approaching 47, things are going to get rough. The good news, however, is that after 47, there is nowhere to go but up.

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