What George Eliot Teaches Us About the Life-Cycle of Happiness and the Science of Why We’re Happier When We’re Older
“One has to spend so many years in learning how to be happy.”
By Maria Popova
Much like creativity is a skill rather than a gift and genius the product of work ethic rather than inspiration, happiness, too, is a practice rather than a state, one that necessitates both learning and constant maintenance. Long before the findings of modern psychology and cognitive science, beloved author George Eliot (November 22, 1819–December 22, 1880) arrived at this insight one spring Sunday in 1844.
Writing in a letter to her dear friend Sara Hennell, found in George Eliot’s Life, as Related in her Letters and Journals (public library | public domain), 25-year-old Eliot reflects on the life-cycle of happiness, defying the romantic myth of the idyllic childhood and insisting instead that our capacity for happiness swells with age:
One has to spend so many years in learning how to be happy. I am just beginning to make some progress in the science, and I hope to disprove Young’s theory that “as soon as we have found the key of life it opes the gates of death.” Every year strips us of at least one vain expectation, and teaches us to reckon some solid good in its stead. I never will believe that our youngest days are our happiest. What a miserable augury for the progress of the race and the destination of the individual if the more matured and enlightened state is the less happy one! Childhood is only the beautiful and happy time in contemplation and retrospect: to the child it is full of deep sorrows, the meaning of which is unknown. Witness colic and whooping-cough and dread of ghosts, to say nothing of hell and Satan, and an offended Deity in the sky, who was angry when I wanted too much plumcake. Then the sorrows of older persons, which children see but cannot understand, are worse than all. All this to prove that we are happier than when we were seven years old, and that we shall be happier when we are forty than we are now, which I call a comfortable doctrine, and one worth trying to believe!
As is often the case with history’s greatest luminaries, Eliot intuited something profound that has since been confirmed and quantified by modern science. In her book on optimism bias and the life-cycle of happiness, neuroscientist Tali Sharot shares some data consistent with Eliot’s sentiment. This is the pattern of a typical person’s happiness over the course of a lifetime — a pattern that persists even when controlled for variables like marital status, health, and cultural climate:
The data comes from behavioral economist Andrew Oswald’s research, which Sharot synthesizes:
Happiness and the ability to learn from bad news alter with age in reverse patterns. The latter follows an inverse U shape, while the former a more traditional U shape. The behavioral economist Andrew Oswald found that from about the time we are teenagers, our sense of happiness starts to decline, hitting rock bottom in our mid-40s (middle-age crisis, anyone?). Then our sense of happiness miraculously starts to go up again rapidly as we grow older. This finding contradicts the common assumption that people in their 60s, 70s, and 80s are less happy and satisfied than people in their 30s and 40s.
All in all, Oswald tested a half million people in 72 countries, in both developing and developed nations. He observed the same pattern across all parts of the globe and across sexes. From Switzerland to Ecuador, from Romania to Singapore, Slovakia, Israel, Spain, Australia, and China. Happiness diminishes as we transition from childhood to adulthood and then starts rising as we grow wrinkles and acquire gray hair. And it’s not only we humans who slump in the middle and feel sunnier toward the end. Just recently, Oswald and colleagues demonstrated that even chimpanzees and orangutans appear to experience a similar pattern of midlife malaise.
The increase of happiness with age might have to do with the notion that attention, like a muscle, grows with training. Since happiness is so heavily anchored to our capacity for presence and so diminished by our mind-wandering, the ability to truly see when we look at the world — something that takes time, practice, and awareness that youth rarely affords — is central to our sense of well-being. But if happiness is a habit to be cultivated, so is its opposite: Lest we forget, 40-year-old Eliot reminds us in The Mill on the Floss that “one gets a bad habit of being unhappy.” Fortunately, Eliot did grow her own capacity for contentment with age.
Published September 23, 2013