Psychology and Relationships

The 'U-shaped happiness curve' theory says your 40s will be your unhappiest age—here’s why that’s wrong, according to a therapist


The most unhappy time of your life is your forties, according to a phenomenon known as the "u-shaped" curve which states that happiness bottoms out around your forties then trends back up as you grow older.

The finding recently resurfaced in a Guardian article where the author, Sophie Brickman, claims that as she approaches 40 she is the unhappiest she's ever been.

The article was met significant pushback.

Daniel Selling, a therapist at Williamsburg Therapy Group, agrees with the dissent: "People in their forties have moved into a rhythm that is more satisfying."

It's actually the years Ms. Brickman is leaving behind that hold the most "angst," he says.

We have more 'complex experiences' in our 20s and 30s

"When you're in your twenties and thirties you definitely have more complex experiences than the average person in their forties," Selling says. 

Dating and career pressures have plagued Americans for generations. But now, those creeping into their forties are likely having the unfortunate experience of measuring their progress against younger folks via social media. It gives the perception that things for people at that age are easier.

But on the flip side, "I think that people [in their twenties and thirties] thought it would be easier than it actually is," he says.

"Whether it's being autonomous and the social pressure that comes with that, the reality of how expensive life is, or dating apps," he says. "Dating apps, while they make many people available, they also make them non-committal. They create a lot of angst in young people."

Dating apps, while they make many people available, they also make them non-committal. They create a lot of angst in young people.
Daniel Selling

'You have to put in the work to be happy'

Selling, who is 47, does understand the underwhelming nature of aging: "No one is excited to turn 40. It's not an exciting age."

And if the questions that consumed you in your previous decades are still lingering, he could see why your forties could be unhappy. 

"If you're in your forties and you haven't found yourself and your career or haven't found aspects of life that are really compelling then I imagine those are the things that could put people in their forties in a lot of stress," he says.

But, if you're working toward your goals in your twenties and thirties, you're more likely to find solace in your forties.

"You have to put in the work to be happy," he says. "It could mean therapy. It could be having passions. It could be having a career that really speaks to who you are and that you're contributing to the world, or that you've made your money." 

In your forties, he says, you also just care less about what other people think of you, which is scientifically proven to increase your happiness

In his clients and in himself, he mostly sees people's lives trending upwards, he says: "If you're really working at it, life should always be getting better."

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