Is Happiness U-shaped in Age Everywhere? A Methodological Reconsideration for Europe

A recent contribution to research on age and well-being asserts that the impact of age on happiness is ‘u-shaped’ virtually everywhere. I evaluate that finding for European countries, considering whether it is robust to alternative methodological approaches. The article shows that these alternative approaches do not produce a u-shape ‘everywhere’: u-shapes are evident for some countries, but for others, the pattern is quite different.

Pub. Date
20 November, 2023
Happy And Angry Faces On Wooden Blocks

Main Points

  • A finding of ‘u-shapes everywhere’ is not robust to reasonable alternative methodological decisions—certainly not for European countries. An analysis using different methodological decisions produces results that for some countries depart (sometimes substantially) from the idea of u-shapes.
  • To estimate the age-to-happiness effect, we are best served by an analysis that uses a full range of adult ages, does not control for individual circumstances but includes controls for cohort and period, and uses a flexible analytical form (instead of imposing a quadratic model even in situations where the relationship is not in fact u-shaped).
  • Where u-shapes exist, they are also substantially ‘shallower’ than is portrayed in Blanchflower (2021). The reason is that in Blanchflower’s analysis there are controls for individual circumstances. These controls are influenced by ageing itself – and the consequence is that that analysis hides some of the impact of age (i.e., they are ‘bad controls’). Getting older commonly includes the experience of loss – and if we use ‘bad controls’ we will ‘control away’ part of the negative impact of ageing on happiness. That approach to the analysis overstates any tendency of happiness to increase in older age.