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Want to be happy when you’re old? Get a job

by Leonid Bershidsky

Bloomberg

Want to be happier when you’re old? Get a job.

In recent years, researchers have made a lot of progress in understanding how happiness changes with age. The relationship is now widely believed to be a U-curve: The level of well-being drops until one’s late 40s and then starts to go up again. An important 2010 study by Arthur Stone of Stony Brook University and his collaborators showed that in the United States, people are happier at 80 than at 20. While the level of sadness remains relatively constant throughout a person’s life, with a slight bump in middle age, older people worry a lot less, experience much less stress and are less frequently angry.

More recent studies show that the U-curve holds throughout the world, with a few exceptions. There are, however, important variations: The age where the curve bottoms out differs across countries, and the subsequent increase in subjective well-being isn’t equally steep. Carol Graham of the Brookings Institution talked about it in a recent podcast. She plotted the curve for various countries based on data from the Gallup World Poll and found that the low point was at 44 in the U.S., 48 in Latin America and 50 in Russia. In middle age “people are stressed, people often have the double burdens of teenage kids and older parents,” Graham explains. “There is also the effect of learning who you’re going to be when you grow up. Expectations align with reality.”

The point where that happens depends a lot on factors such as when people start working, get married and have children, then reach their career peak.

Perhaps, however, a few years’ difference in when you reach your nadir isn’t as important as the knowledge that things will get better from there. Graham provided some country-specific data to The Washington Post, which produced stunning graphs showing that subjective well- being grows fast after the middle-age pit in China and the United Kingdom, moderately in Latin America and the U.S., slowly in Germany and doesn’t grow at all in Russia.

Some of that divergence could be written off to cultural and historical differences. In China, for example, the culture of respect for older people is deeply ingrained. In Russia, entire generations of older and middle-aged people were ruthlessly pushed to the sidelines when the Soviet Union collapsed because they had trouble fitting in with an entirely new economic system.

National character peculiarities tend to skew the data in various ways: Britons, for example, report lower life satisfaction in person than on the phone. Even tangible and intuitively understandable factors such as health, though, cannot fully explain why people’s sense of well-being recovers faster in some rich countries than in others.

In a recent paper, Graham explored the relationship between well-being and late-life work.

She found that there are “well-being benefits to voluntary part-time employment as well as to remaining in the workforce beyond retirement age.”

These results are especially pronounced in countries where part-time work is the norm and people work past retirement age out of choice rather than necessity. In France and Germany, for example, voluntary part-time work is most widespread among the 36-to-45 age group, while in the U.K. and Portugal it is more prevalent at ages 55 to 65.

That, in part, explains why the well-being-age curve is steeper in the U.K. than in Germany. Older workers work the most in the U.S., U.K., Sweden and Portugal, making them, somewhat counter-intuitively, the best developed countries in which to grow old.

In the end, older people are happier, and feel healthier, when they are active and feel needed. A happy, work-free retirement is a myth.

According to Graham’s study, self-employment starts providing a “happiness bonus” in one’s 60s. So instead of looking for a sunny place to retire, it makes sense to settle in a country where it’s normal for older people to have meaningful, flexible employment.

Leonid Bershidsky, a Moscow-based novelist, writes on Russia, Europe and technology for Bloomberg View. Follow him on Twitter: @Bershidsky.