The midlife crisis is alive and well — and it hits especially hard at age after age 47, according to new research from David Blanchflower, an economics professor at Dartmouth College.
Blanchflower recently released two working papers (with the National Bureau of Economic Research) that examines the levels of happiness and unhappiness over a person's lifetime. After looking at data from roughly 500,000 individuals in 132 countries, he found that happiness for people in advanced countries bottoms out at age 47.2. In developing countries, it reaches its lowest point at age 48.2.
Blanchflower, 67, tells CNBC Make It that the findings also extend to his personal life. "There's a midlife crisis with a low point around age 50, which was my low point of happiness, too," he says. "But there's evidence that, for most people, things do get better from then on."
Blanchflower's study, which controlled for gender, education, marital status and labor force status, further supports the "happiness curve" theory, which states that our happiness levels fall in the first decades of adulthood, and then hits bottom in our late 40s or 50s before rebounding upward.
And it makes sense: Most people in their late-40s are part of what's known as the "sandwich generation" — or those who care for aging parents and their own family at the same time. "Financially, they may be helping to support the health care needs of their parents, while simultaneously paying for their kids' education," Johnny Taylor, president and CEO of the Society for Human Resource Management, tells CNBC Make It. "That stress shows up and impacts work."
Workers in their late-40s are also more likely to be in middle management positions. The transition from being a junior-level employee to taking on more responsibilities can have a negative impact on happiness levels, Tess Brigham, a San Francisco-based therapist, tells CNBC Make It.
Furthermore, they might be reaching a peak in their careers — where there's little room for advancement and retirement prospects are still decades away. "Satisfaction at work is closely correlated to overall satisfaction in life," explains Taylor. "People increasingly admit they largely define themselves by their career achievements."
Regret and uncertainty may play another role, according to Neda Gould, a clinical psychologist and director of the Mindfulness Program at Johns Hopkins. "We're looking back at experiences we may regret, and then we're looking forward and wondering what the next phase may look like. That can cause anxiety," she tells CNBC Make It.
The larger economic and political climate seems to have an impact on happiness levels, too. As Blanchflower writes, "The middle-aged have had particular difficulties in adapting in the years of slow growth since the Great Recession [of 2008 and 2009]. The interaction between a nadir for happiness among the middle aged along with a major downturn has had major social, political and health consequences that have reverberated around the world."
The good news about Blanchflower's research is that it confirms our happiness levels do eventually go back up.
Drawing from previous research, he says there are three potential reasons people see a rebound: They learn to readjust expectations of themselves, they learn to appreciate their success when they see others who haven't achieved as much and, finally, cheerful people may live longer in general.
Taylor, Gould and Brigham agree that mindfulness and expressing gratitude can help individuals feel happier. "It's about learning to be more present in the moment and grateful for the things you have," says Brigham. "You may not be able to sell everything and buy a boat and sail around the world, but you can make small changes to create more of the life you want."
Additionally, Taylor encourages younger professionals to prioritize their financial savings while time is on their side. It can mitigate the financial crunch when people begin to have larger financial responsibilities, whether that's around having kids, caring for aging parents — or both.
Despite the challenges that may come with your late-40s, Brigham, who will turn 47 in June, wouldn't trade it for being young again. "If you told me, 'Tess, I have a time machine where you could be 27 or 28 again,' I'd say no. Even though my knees hurt now, I wouldn't go back," she says.
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