The 'U-shaped happiness curve' theory says your 40s will be your unhappiest age—here’s why that’s wrong, according to a therapist (2024)

The most unhappy time of your life is your forties, according to a phenomenon known as the "u-shaped" curve which states that happiness bottoms out around your forties then trends back up as you grow older.

The finding recently resurfaced in a Guardian article where the author, Sophie Brickman, claims that as she approaches 40 she is the unhappiest she's ever been.

The article was met significant pushback.

Daniel Selling, a therapist at Williamsburg Therapy Group, agrees with the dissent: "People in their forties have moved into a rhythm that is more satisfying."

It's actually the years Ms. Brickman is leaving behind that hold the most "angst," he says.

We have more 'complex experiences' in our 20s and 30s

"When you're in your twenties and thirties you definitely have more complex experiences than the average person in their forties," Selling says.

Dating and career pressures have plagued Americans for generations. But now, those creeping into their forties are likely having the unfortunate experience of measuring their progress against younger folks via social media. It gives the perception that things for people at that age are easier.

But on the flip side, "I think that people [in their twenties and thirties] thought it would be easier than it actually is," he says.

"Whether it's being autonomous and the social pressure that comes with that, the reality of how expensive life is, or dating apps," he says. "Dating apps, while they make many people available, they also make them non-committal. They create a lot of angst in young people."

Dating apps, while they make many people available, they also make them non-committal. They create a lot of angst in young people.

Daniel Selling


'You have to put in the work to be happy'

Selling, who is 47, does understand the underwhelming nature of aging: "No one is excited to turn 40. It's not an exciting age."

And if the questions that consumed you in your previous decades are still lingering, he could see why your forties could be unhappy.

"If you're in your forties and you haven't found yourself and your career or haven't found aspects of life that are really compelling then I imagine those are the things that could put people in their forties in a lot of stress," he says.

But, if you're working toward your goals in your twenties and thirties, you're more likely to find solace in your forties.

"You have to put in the work to be happy," he says. "It could mean therapy. It could be having passions. It could be having a career that really speaks to who you are and that you're contributing to the world, or that you've made your money."

In your forties, he says, you also just care less about what other people think of you, which is scientifically proven to increase your happiness.

In his clients and in himself, he mostly sees people's lives trending upwards, he says: "If you're really working at it, life should always be getting better."

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The 'U-shaped happiness curve' theory says your 40s will be your unhappiest age—here’s why that’s wrong, according to a therapist (2024)


Why are people unhappy in their 40s? ›

Negativity around aging might make you feel a sense of despair or a drop in self-esteem as you reach midlife. You might feel compelled to reevaluate your progress in life or view this time period as simply a transition into old age.

What age is the U curve of happiness? ›

Abstract The notion of a U shape in happiness—that well-being is highest for people in their 20s, decreases to its nadir in midlife, and then rises into old age—has captured the attention of the media, which often cite it as evidence for a midlife crisis.

What is the U shaped curve in midlife? ›

Have you heard about the “Happiness U-Curve”? This term helps to describe the dip in life satisfaction experienced at middle age followed by recovery and increased life satisfaction as we grow older. This perplexing phenomenon is also known as the paradox of aging.

Are you happier in your 40s? ›

The most unhappy time of your life is your forties, according to a phenomenon known as the "u-shaped" curve which states that happiness bottoms out around your forties then trends back up as you grow older.

What is a 40 year old woman's midlife crisis? ›

The definition of a midlife crisis is a period of transition in life where someone struggles with their identity and self-confidence. It happens anywhere from 40 years old to 60 years old and affects men and women. A midlife crisis is not a disorder but is mainly psychological.

Are your 40s the hardest years? ›

A substantial body of research indicates that people are most depressed in their forties. This holds in the USA, the UK, and 70 other countries. It isn't just humans.

Why is 47 the saddest age? ›

He lists, “Staleness of romantic relationships; supporting kids and caring for ageing parents at the same time; not having enough time to do things that you used to enjoy; your body being that little bit older and not having quite the same energy levels as you did when you were younger, so the temptation to drift off ...

Which age is most happiest? ›

A research team has now shed light on the question in a comprehensive meta-analytic review. The findings show that the respondents' life satisfaction decreased between the ages of 9 and 16, then increased slightly until the age of 70, and then decreased once again until the age of 96.

What is life like in your 40s? ›

You get to an age where you know your boundaries better and accept friendships that feel more nourishing. You're now old enough that you can spot someone who won't match with your values and you're confident enough to let that relationship go. The same goes for annoying relatives.

Why do people get happier as they get older? ›

A large body of research backs up the idea that people get happier as they age. Some of that has to do with emotional wisdom, according to Laura Carstensen, professor of psychology and director of the Stanford Center on Longevity. “As we age, our time horizons grow shorter and our goals change.

What is the paradox of aging? ›

Despite age-related changes or declines in circ*mstances, health or income, many older people can maintain subjective well-being (SWB) in later life. This is known as the paradox of well-being.

What is the U shaped relationship with age? ›

The stylised finding is that individuals gradually become unhappier after their 18th birthday, with a minimum around 50, followed by a gradual upturn in old age. The predicted effect of age can be quite large.

Is being in your 40s considered old? ›

middle age, period of human adulthood that immediately precedes the onset of old age. Though the age period that defines middle age is somewhat arbitrary, differing greatly from person to person, it is generally defined as being between the ages of 40 and 60.

What happens in your 40s mentally? ›

Symptoms of a midlife crisis may include depression or anxiety, irritability or mood swings, sleep disturbances, weight gain or loss, increased indecisiveness and more.

Why are 40s the best years? ›

You're comfortable in your own skin.

A few wrinkles and gray hair no longer scare you. This newfound confidence can give you the energy to pursue new hobbies, try new things, and explore new opportunities. As you age, you start to understand what's important in life. You have a better sense of what makes you happy.

Is it normal to feel depressed in your 40s? ›

In 2022 a study conducted by Mental Health Research Canada (pdf) found that those in their 40s are experiencing higher rates of depression than any other group.

Is it normal to be depressed in your 40s? ›

The researchers found that the peak of depression for both men and women in the U.K. is around 44 years of age; in the U.S., women on average are most miserable at age 40 whereas men are when they hit 50. They found a similar pattern in 70 other countries.

At what age are people the least happy Why? ›

Let's get to the good news already — 47.2 represents the lowest point of a “happiness U-curve.” Meaning, according to the Blanchflower study, our happiness levels fall in the first decades of adulthood, and then hit bottom in our late 40s before rebounding upward.

Why do people get more miserable as they get older? ›

As we get older, poor health can affect our confidence, make us less independent and make us feel more anxious. It can become harder to get out and do the things we once enjoyed, which can be very frustrating and get us down. Side effects of certain medications can also have an impact on our feelings.

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