Category Archives: March 2011

Breaking the Unhappiness Curve

It’s all downhill from high school. Recent  studies indicate that Americans in general show their level of happiness steadily decreases

Happiness level by age

from their late teens and bottoms out in their late 40s, early 50s.  The good news for those of us in our 50s is that the study also shows happiness levels increasing through the rest of life.

Not everyone’s life follows this curve.  No matter what age you are, you can break the curve!

It’s the American way of life.

In my last post I said that no one would hire me as a politician or a financial planner.  This post I will add that no one would hire me as sociologist either.  However, I did do some research for this post.  I don’t want to bore you with all the research, but I would like to share this excerpt from one of the articles I studied.

“In explanation of the non-linear age effect,  it is argued that aspired consumption (including marriage, etc.) grows faster in age than do one’s financial resources for its realization, finally resulting in what is often called “midlife crises”.  From the age of between 35 and 50 on, a re-evaluation of aspirations occurs that leads to their downward adjustment.”

In plain English this study says that our desire for things (great marriage, fantastic kids, nice home and car, successful career, etc.) occurs sooner than our ability to obtain them.  We want to own things right now, even though we don’t have the money for them, and we want success in our careers, marriages, and parenting before we have paid the price of experience.

This difference between our aspirations and our ability to achieve them can lead to stress, debt, depression and finally result in mid-life crises.  When the crises point is reached, we re-evaluate our wants and begin to determine what we truly need to be happy. Maybe that 3000 sq. ft. house and the $50,000 car weren’t really that important.  And maybe we notice that the guy who got the job we wanted has the nice house and car, but is never there to enjoy them, his wife is divorcing him, and his kids are a wreck.

What can we learn from our senior citizens?

Ask yourself why happiness improves in people from their mid-50s until old age?  I think there are several reasons.

A big reason is that their financial situation has improved. Their salary has continued to climb with time and experience and they are at the peak of their earning potential.  The house is close to being paid off and the children have left the nest and are making their own way.

Another reason is that there is usually less demands on their time, freeing them to do things that they enjoy.  The soccer mom days are over. They may have grand kids in soccer now, but they don’t have to buy their equipment, take them to practices and help coach the team if they don’t want to do so.  Many older people stay active, but they have discarded the activities they did not enjoy and focus on doing the ones that make them happy.

A third reason is that they have already re-evaluated their lives and have determined what is really important to them.  They are no longer chasing the American Dream as portrayed on TV and are instead chasing their own dreams.

You can break the curve.

You don’t have to wait until your mid-life crises to change your life.  You can break the curve no matter what your age.  Taking what we have learned from the study about the causes of the unhappiness curve and from the example of senior citizens, we can deduce these curve-busting solutions.

  1. Determine what truly makes you happy.  Don’t base your decisions on what TV tells you will make you happy or on what your neighbors and co-workers are doing.  Make a list of everything you think would make you happy, and then review each item and question the reason why you included it on the list.  Focus your time and resources on the items remaining on the list.
  2. Control you spending and your debt.  The study shows that people desire things before they can afford them.  Unfortunately, many people turn to credit to fulfill those desires.  Everyone knows the stress debt can cause on families and health.  Base your purchases on the items you really need and the things on your happiness list.  Avoid making purchases based on false need created by advertisers or because it looked good on a neighbor.
  3. Clear the clutter from your life.  Clutter is the stuff we no longer need or want that is filling up our closets, garages and storage sheds.  Clutter is also the activities that take time away from doing the things that are needed and/or important to us.  Read “Clear Away Clutter – 4 Steps to get Started” to begin decluttering your life.

If you determine what is really important to you and focus your time and resources towards those things, you will break the unhappiness curve.  I know accomplishing the above three steps is not as easy as I make it sound.  In fact, it is hard to do, but well worth the effort.  Fortunately for us, there are books and resources we can draw on help. My Recommended Reading page has books to help you in all three of the steps above.

Please feel free to comment or contact me with any questions and concerns you may have.  If you have not read my post “A Call for Change, Make 2011 the Less of Less, I recommend you do so now.

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