• By Dartington SRU
  • Posted on Thursday 03rd December, 2009

There's a light at the end of the U-bend

Studies of happiness struggle for rigor and objectivity, and attributions to the Journal of Happiness Studies will always be likely to raise an eyebrow and a smile.But “happiness” findings travel the world at speed, and indications of what might make voting adults feel good or better are a desirable commodity.Don’t be surprised, for example, if, in the wake of a UK Labour government announcement of policy to support “lasting relationships between parents,” the Conservative opposition turns to happiness work at the University of Glasgow, when making its own case for more conventional family cohesion.Only last month, Luis Angeles in the university’s Department of Economics reported in the JHS, “For the average person, having children has a small and possibly zero effect on life satisfaction (aka happiness). For the average married person, however, the effect is large, positive and increasing in proportion to the number of children… And elsewhere: “Our findings are consistent with children making married people better off, while most unmarried individuals appear to be worse off with children.” “We do not mean this as a moralistic defense of marriage,” Angeles added – but too late: Married With Children The Key To Happiness?” a US Science Daily headline writer concluded in a flash.Happiness studies are also infiltrating public health debates, and perceptions and misperceptions about the happiness of others are the focus of a curious University of Belfast inquiry into the relationship between the wisdom and resignation of the old and the drunken hedonism of the young. That one made it into the Times of India, this week: “Young men who believe that aging is associated with a decline in happiness are more likely to engage in risky health behaviors such as binge drinking, according to a new study. “Their negative view of the aging process may act as a disincentive to behave ‘sensibly’ and encourage them to make the most of the present in anticipation of ‘miserable’ old age, say researchers John Garry and Maria Lohan from Queen’s University Belfast, Northern Ireland.“Researchers analyzed data from face-to-face interviews with over 1,000 citizens of Northern Ireland aged over 15 years.“Participants were asked to report how happy they currently felt, as well as to estimate how happy they expected to be at the age of 30 and 70. Those who were over 30 and/or 70 were asked to think back at how happy they were then.“The researchers also asked them to indicate how happy the average person of their age at age 30 is and how happy at age 70.“Young people wrongly believed that aging is associated with a decline in happiness. Indeed, young people estimated that happiness declined with age, whereas there was no difference between the self-reported happiness levels of young people and old people.“‘Our findings confirm, in the case of binge drinking by men, that risky health behavior in youth is associated with an underestimation of happiness in old age. It may be worthwhile to emphasize, to young men in particular, the positive impact on their lives of reducing alcohol and inform them about happiness in old age,’ the authors said.”Garry and Lohan’s research was funded in Belfast via the Northern Ireland Changing Ageing Partnership (CAP), which was established in December 2005 with the backing of The Atlantic Philanthropies. CAP’s five-year mission has been to empower older people to transform how they are viewed by society. The happiness research extended work published in 2006 by a behavioral science team from Ann Arbor, Michigan, which focused on the “well-being paradox”. “Self-reports confirmed increasing happiness with age, yet both younger and older participants believed that happiness declines. Both groups estimated declining happiness for the average person, but only older adults estimated this decline for themselves.”The same year David Blanchflower from Dartmouth College US and Andrew Oswald from University of Warwick UK confirmed speculation that well-being was U-shaped according to age: it drained away to its minimum – on both sides of the Atlantic and for both sexes – in the mid to late 40s. Garry and Lohan’s efforts to substantiate the connection between the well-being paradox and the misguided pessimistic hedonism of young men (and in the process to open a new avenue for imaginative social marketing) were new.“They abuse their bodies as they do not perceive an incentive to preserve them,” they write. “Why behave sensibly if all you are doing is preserving your body for a miserable old age?” ReferencesGarry J and Lohan M, “Mispredicting Happiness Across the Adult Lifespan: Implications for the Risky Health Behaviour of Young People,” Journal of Happiness Studies, 2009; DOI: 10.1007/s10902-009-9174-1Lacey H P, Smith D M and Ubel P A, “Hope I die before I get old: Happiness across the adult lifespan,” Journal of Happiness Studies 2006, 7: 167–182 Springer 2006 DOI 10.1007/s10902-005-2748-7Blanchflower D G and Oswald A J, 2007, "Is Well-being U-Shaped over the Life Cycle?" The Warwick Economics Research Paper Series (TWERPS) 826, University of Warwick, Department of Economics.

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