Last week, a survey concluded that we are at our most miserable between the ages of 50 and 54 and that happiness doesn’t come round again until you’re aged 65-79.
However, the academic behind the happiness questions in the Office for National Statistics survey says there are ways to tackle your own levels of happiness.
Paul Dolan, author of the bestselling Happiness By Design and professor of behavioural science at the London School of Economics, said patterns can be broken by taking care to enjoy the little things in life.
“I think too much is being made of the U-shape dip [that happens in the 40s and 50s],” he said. “It’s all about actually changing what you do to do more of the things we like – listen to music, go outdoors, meet friends and new people. If everybody did that every day we’d be a lot happier.”
Dolan asked the ONS to insert questions into its survey that, rather than simply asking people how happy they felt, asked about how satisified they felt with certain aspects of their life and how worthwhile they felt.
“When you’re young you have all this false optimism about life; when you are in midlife most people haven’t achieved what they would like to, and then by the time you’re in your late 50s you start to get over yourself and start doing things you like, caring less about social comparisons,” he said. He said that asking people how happy they are when they are doing stuff makes a messier pattern. “When it comes to a sense of purpose the pleasure profile is really quite complex,” he says. “People with the least levels of purpose are actually young people.”
He has another key piece of advice. Don’t try a self-help book. “It’s an explosive genre because they explain how you could feel but not how to achieve that. They don’t work, they merely encourage people to go and buy another self-help book. I think we are all searching for fun and fulfillment and we all too often get the balance wrong and make all sorts of mistakes We are searching for optimal balance but that’s not to say we should be searching for it by looking for it all the time,” he said.
Grappling with the concept of happiness might seem like a modern obsession but is anything but. Dolan points out that the U-shape in happiness has been replicated in surveys around the globe, in all cultures. Aristotle came up with the comment that “happiness depends upon ourselves” – at a time when unfortunately the quote’s potential as an inspirational Facebook posting could not be realised. But if he enshrined happiness as a central purpose of human life and a goal in itself around 320BC, then the struggle people have to find wellbeing today is more about the human condition than modern stress levels.
Dolan, who was also a member of the government’s Behavioural Insights Team – or “Nudge Unit” – which was set up to suggest small changes that people could make to improve their health and wellbeing, says there is a key difference between how people often evaluate their lives and actually experience them. “Don’t pay attention to how happy things make you. Instead, find things which make you feel good, then do more of them.
Mindset change can be hard but behavioural change less so, he said. “A long-term sustainable impact on your life can be achieved but not by sitting about thinking if only I was slimmer, fitter, richer, then I would be happier,” he said. “It’s not going to happen, so you’ll still be miserable.”