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20180909 – The Happiness Curve


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The main idea of this book is to present a human life as U curve of happiness / unhappiness with bottom achieved in the middle age. The book is based on psychological research and author’s own experience, which he extensively uses to support various topics related to this idea, as well as multiple examples from other people’s lives.


  1. The Voyage of Life

It starts with discussion of series of pictures from XIX century by Thomas Cole representing journey through live as sailing along the river and then it intertwines with the stories of a few middle age individuals who express phycological difficulties of middle age that seems to have no reason and author’s own experience of the same. Then he discusses the situation that occurs later with age, when this changed and to his somewhat dismay it changed to the better despite usual bodily deterioration.

  1. What Makes Us Happy (and Doesn’t)

Here author moves to discussion of what actually makes people happy and uses work and life story of his colleague Carol Graham. She did research in Peru and discovered that even very poor people are quite happy, even if people whose income changed to the better were less happy. The same phenomenon of disconnect between objective economic situation and perception she found in Russia and China. Then he moves to Easterlin and his research that found impact of material condition on happiness is quite limited. Author presents long going discussion of these paradoxes and then discusses nature of happiness and its variations such as evaluative happiness= subjective wellbeing and affective happiness= momentary emotional condition. Author summarizes it as 6 factors:

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  1. A Timely Discovery

Here author moves to the story of discovery of happiness curve, the phenomenon common not only for humans, but also for apes. First it was kind of discovery of middle age crisis in 1965 by Elliott Jaques for which there is still no hard-scientific evidence. However self-reporting provides data that about a half of people are going through some distress during this period of their lives. Then author moves to British economist Andrew Oswald and his research on subjective economics – evaluation of one’s situation based on others’ situation. This research was based on big data, covering some 37 countries and thousands of people. This led to discovery of age dependent U-curve of happiness. Author also discusses some challenges to this theory, referring to dependency of happiness on personality and combination of big 5: neuroticism, extroversion, openness to experience, agreeableness, and conscientiousness. All of these are heavily dependent on genetic make up of a person, which links it to another research, this time on Chimps, conducted by Alex Weiss, Mark Enns, and James King, which provided support that age dependent psychological condition could be clearly demonstrated in animals.

  1. The Shape of the River

This starts with discussion of author’s polling of hundreds of middle age people. Generally, they reported unease and hope for change. Here is a nice illustration:

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After that author discusses less obvious results that indicate that age dependency is not that clear, but claims that after controlling for health income and such, the satisfaction curve still stands. The next topic is the scale of age impact. Authr refer to research by Oswald and Cheng demonstrating that moving from 20 to 45  compares to negative impact of unemployment or divorce. Author even presents a simple formula:

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The final part of chapter is about international research demonstrating qualitative simolarity for all with various levels of happiness depending on the country.Here is part of this comparison:

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  1. The Expectations Trap

Here author moves to search for reasons for the curve. It basically comes to the variance between expectations and reality. It is nicely illustrated by this graph:

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It is not only change in ratio between expectation and reality, but also impact of regrets: youth has little regrets – everything is in the future. With age time is more and more limited, so by the middle level of regrets is high and variance between expectations and results is high. With expectations are getting lower; disappointments also are getting lower, while regrets are not that acute any more. Author also discusses how expectations change and refer to works of Tali Sharot on optimism. Finally, author discusses the work of Jonathan Haidt on meaning of happiness and his analogy of the elephant and rider.

  1. The Paradox of Aging

Here author moves from middle age to older age, and tries to answer to question why older people are happier:

  • Stress declines after about 50
  • Emotional regulation improves
  • Old people feel less regret

However older people are not depression-prone, especially at the very old age.

On the bright side per Tarot: “Optimistic bias increases in older age”. Overall conclusion is that pick of emotional life comes around seventh decade. Even when health starts giving up, older people manage to stay happy despite deterioration. At the end of chapter author relates research of Laura Garstensen on emotional and social live of old people. The inference here is that old people careful with their emotional investments and highly value remaining time of live, resulting in higher satisfaction of its use.

  1. Crossing Toward Wisdom

The chapter starts with the story of Andrew Sullivan who walked away from his successful blog and author uses it as an example of middle live transition. After that he discusses much more difficult transition with depression and mental problems. It leads to presentation of Dilip Jeste and Positive Psychiatry as extension of Positive Psychology. After that he moves to the notion of “wisdom”, which somehow is considered a taboo. He brings in work of Monika Ardelt who demonstrated quantifiability of wisdom. It was done along 3 domains:  Quantitative, Affective, and Reflectiveand author goes into details of what it is and what it is good for.

  1. Helping Ourselves

This chapter present discussion with Joshua Coleman, who is practicing psychologist, about ways to handle most difficult points on happiness curve and here are key points:

  • Normalize
  • Interrupt the Internal Critics
  • Stay Present (Mindful Presence)
  • Share
  • Step, Don’t Leap
  • Wait (It gets better)
  1. Helping Each Other

This as mainly about Self-Help being not sufficient in some cases so one may need help from others. Author stresses need for psychological support from close people but warns against medicalization and substitution such as buying sports car in early 50s. After that author moves to overall life cycle starting with childhood and adolescence (recent invention of wealth society, which actually was created in 1904). Then he jumps to older ages and discusses ENCORE.ORG – organization supporting the second and following chances in life. Author also discusses various forms it could take.

  1. Epilogue: Gratitude

The final word here is about Gratitude for life and for opportunities for happiness it brings. He ends with the point that U curve of life, when one achieves the top on the right side in happy old age, makes Gratitude easier to come and therefore worth to struggle through life to get there.


This is a nice book to read for somebody like me who is rapidly moving up on the right side of the U curve. Actually, I do no remember being at the bottom, but it was probably because my middle age happened to be at the time when I was too busy getting out of the old USSR and building a new life in USA. Somehow this kind of staff consumes too much time and effort, leaving very little for self-digging and psychological complexities. On other hand, being very simple-minded person is, probably, also quite helpful in avoiding psychological complexities of contemporary upper middle class life. Anyway, it is a nice review of life cycle that could be helpful for somebody going through difficult time or somebody just interested in human psychology. It has quite a few interesting references and also provides some information that in my opinion support the idea that humans have evolutionary selected features influencing individual’s psychology and correspondingly action that are instrumental in fine-tuning individual behavior to promote group survival. It seems to be no accident that periods of happiness corresponds to periods when individuals have the highest value for the group: young age with its energy and readiness to make sacrifices for the group, act quickly, decisively, and with little thought applied – eventually making the future of the group; and old age, when accumulated over decades wisdom makes individual into valuable asset for decision making and directing all this youthful energy to some meaningful cause. From this point of view, the middle age with lower energy and not enough accumulated wisdom had to be a lower point when individual’s value to the group is at the bottom.

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