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Stress and worry ebb, happiness grows after 50

May 17, 2010 |  5:28 pm

Imagine that life were a board game -- let's call it, "Are We There Yet?"

The objective of the game -- "getting there" -- could be to attain happiness and even, say, wisdom (a very new-age board game). It could also be to avoid the pitfalls of illness and despair and reach the end of a long and healthy life (a board game for the slightly more worry-prone).

No matter which objective you choose, the game will look about the same: According to a study   published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, those two endpoints -- happiness and long life -- pretty much follow the same course. Happiness -- maybe even wisdom -- grows as you pass midlife and get closer to the end. 

How'd they figure this out? In a 2008 survey underwritten by the Healthways Inc., the Gallup Organization asked 355,344 Americans from 18 to 84 not only to rate their general level of well-being but also the levels of happiness, enjoyment, stress, worry, sadness and anger they had felt the previous day. Respondents' well-being showed a clear pattern across the age span: for men, happiness and enjoyment hit a low point, on average, somewhere in their 40s, and women's nadir of happiness and enjoyment came between 50 and 53. From there, a significant upward turn began, and continued to improve into the octogenarian years.

There were lots of chutes and ladders along the way. Players -- er, respondents -- had to work their way past the heart-pounding peak of stress in their mid-20s, and endure declining but continued stress through their 30s and 40s. But after about 50, stress took a deep plunge. High levels of worry threatened to impede forward progress for men in the 46-49 years and peak for women at 50-53, but then declined steadily. Anger burned hottest at 18-21, stayed pretty high into the early 40s, when a sudden explosion of rage could cause a loss of turn. Then, it steadily declined.

We all know women live longer, but this survey makes clear it's a little harder on them than it is on men. At all ages, their reported levels of "enjoyment" are lower than mens'. At all ages, their levels of stress and worry are significantly higher than those of men. At all ages, their reported sadness is higher than mens'. Only their levels of anger were the equal of mens' throughout the lifespan.

Want a personal tour of the booming landscape of happiness? You'll want to check out Harvard's "Happier" guru. And have a look at this site.

--Melissa Healy


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Comments (4)

This is from a phone survey taken in 2008 - before the retirement accounts of the "over 50s" tanked. Wonder how their stress levels are now?

A group of scientists studied... this is where the problem lies. Ask real people in every part of the world and in every walk of life to define happiness and you will get many descriptions of what they consider happiness. How can you study a subject when the subject is subjective? I work with people to find happiness within their lives and I can tell you what people are looking for when they say "happiness" is as different as the individual themselves. Happiness can be found by each and every one of us no matter the circumstances of our lives but only after awareness and introspective review of their beliefs about happiness. I wish more articles about happiness would give us real solutions rather than tell us what the scientists have discovered. Discovery of your happiness does not need to wait for conditions to be perfect you just need to seek it.Kim Upstone A New Day A New Vision

1. This study was done in early 2008 before the USA entered the highest unemployment rates in the last 100 years, tossing those in their 50's, which were supposed to be their peak earnings years, onto the street, with reportedly almost no chance of ever recovering their previous wage level.
2. This study was done before the retirement accounts of every near retirement person were decimated by the Ponzi scheme which was run by Wall Street Investment banks.

I find it highly curious that all the major news organizations are glossing over the dates which underly this magically released "study".

I also find it highly entertaining that they think anyone will believe the premise of such an obviously flawed story done by a newspaper whose own existence is teetering onthe edge of extinction. Go ask your 50 year old employees how stress free they are.

Simply, this is not true. At this point being 50 in the USA means turning the corner of the financial race facing inalterable slowly grating poverty.

Many other studies have pointed out that the generation of folks hitting 50 were too young to have profited from the largest part of the investment gains experienced by the baby boomers, but are too old to wait out the next set of gains....and the way the USA is allowing foreign companies like Accenture to avoid taxes with their Irish incorporation while simultaneously making it a business to toss highly qualified American workers onto the street and selling their jobs to underqualifed offshore labor, this has virtually guaranteed a swath of hard working people at least 30 years of slow, grinding poverty...all to enrich the CEO and his top layer of executives.

This is no longer America.

Great article Melissa, thanks!

We also love Ben Shahar of Harvard - he's the favorite video on our website. After watching his 10 minute piece, you want to run a marathon! Truly spectacular stuff.

It's at

ruHap brings the leading academic Happiness research to users in small, fun, bite sized pieces. ruHap’s free website ( contains extensive Happiness Resources, a Daily Happiness Quote, a blog (How to be Happy) and much more.

Thanks, and Be Happy,

Gregory S. Barsh, Esq.
Chief Happiness Officer
ruHap, The Happiness Company
Follow our blog, How to be Happier, at


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