Peak Misery And The Happiness Curve : Planet Money How do you measure happiness? Economist David Blanchflower says age has a lot to do with it.
NPR logo

Peak Misery And The Happiness Curve

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/802781417/802782669" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Peak Misery And The Happiness Curve

Peak Misery And The Happiness Curve

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/802781417/802782669" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF DROP ELECTRIC SONG, "WAKING UP TO THE FIRE")

STACEY VANEK SMITH, HOST:

Happiness - it can feel like a difficult thing to quantify and also kind of elusive at moments. Like, what will make a person happy? Is it a great job? Is it a family? Is it money? Is it - I don't know - yoga?

GREG ROSALSKY, HOST:

It's definitely not yoga.

VANEK SMITH: (Laughter) Yeah, I've been to some yoga classes - definitely not yoga. But still, that doesn't help answer our question. So where do we turn for an answer to how to quantify and measure happiness?

ROSALSKY: Economists - of course.

VANEK SMITH: Economists - of course. Of course that's where you go to learn about happiness.

ROSALSKY: Right. So this economist David Blanchflower - he has a new study out. It builds on some old work of his where he finds a strong correlation between the age and happiness. And he released a study recently that finds that people report being the most unhappy - they reach their peak misery - in their mid-to-late 40s.

VANEK SMITH: Yeah. Apparently, there's something called a happiness curve. So you - before you reach the certain age in your mid-to-late 40s, you're getting progressively more unhappy. You hit this age, and then you get happier after that.

This is THE INDICATOR FROM PLANET MONEY. I'm Stacey Vanek Smith.

ROSALSKY: And I'm Greg Rosalsky.

VANEK SMITH: And Greg, you are the author of the Planet Money newsletter.

ROSALSKY: That is right. Please subscribe.

VANEK SMITH: Please subscribe.

ROSALSKY: Did that sound desperate?

VANEK SMITH: No, absolutely not. And I read it, and I was like, this is very bleak and disturbing and would also make an amazing INDICATOR because there's this very particular age that is supposedly peak misery. It's, like, the nadir of nihilism, the bottom of the barrel, the worst of the worst, the moment at which darkness closes in and after which it apparently releases. Greg, give it to us.

ROSALSKY: It is 47.2.

VANEK SMITH: Forty-seven-point-two years old. You heard it here first - peak misery.

ROSALSKY: Peak misery - talk about the dismal science. And today in the show, we talk to the economist David Blanchflower about the happiness curve - 47.2 and what it's like to be on the other side of it.

OK. Why don't we start with your name and what you do?

DAVID BLANCHFLOWER: David Blanchflower. I'm professor of economics at Dartmouth College.

ROSALSKY: And there was a period there where you served on the Bank of England? Is that right?

BLANCHFLOWER: Yes. In 2006, Gordon Brown called me up and said, Danny, I want you to go to the Bank of England. And I said, oh, OK. And in fact...

VANEK SMITH: Gordon Brown really said, Danny, I want you to come to the bank...

BLANCHFLOWER: Yeah, really. Seriously (laughter).

ROSALSKY: So monetary policy clearly is one of your specialties. How did you get into this sort of world of happiness and midlife crises?

BLANCHFLOWER: So what does a central banker care about? Central banker cares about interest rates, inflation, unemployment, growth. But they're - people don't care about that. They care about how it impacts their well-being. So I started to think about, ultimately, what impacts their well-being. So I actually have a paper where I look at how inflation and unemployment impact people's happiness. So in a sense, those things are intermediate goods. What we really do care about are people's happiness. So that's how I got to it. And then I started to realize there were patterns in the data.

ROSALSKY: Wild guess here - high unemployment, high unhappiness. Is that...

BLANCHFLOWER: Absolutely right. And so what I found was - one of the big results from this is that a 1 percentage point increase in unemployment has a big effect on people's happiness. And so that's some of the stuff that I've been doing.

VANEK SMITH: One of the, like, really basic question is - I mean, obviously, I know how we measure unemployment, but how do you go about measuring well-being? Like, how do you measure happiness? Feels like that would've been a challenge at the start of this research.

BLANCHFLOWER: Absolutely. So it turns out that there are many, many, many, many surveys now around the world that actually ask people directly, how happy are you? So sometimes they say it - literally, how happy are you on a scale of 1 to 10? How satisfied with your life are you? So these scores - well, the first thing is that the patterns in these data when you ask this - you pretty much get the same results every time. Most people are pretty happy. Very few people are very unhappy. And the same influences occur on it. But I think what you would say is, well, why does this matter? Well, it turns out this is correlate with things. So happy people heal faster. They live longer. They're healthier.

ROSALSKY: So you are in the world of central banking. You get interested in happiness and well-being. And then in 2007, you release this sort of paper that had a huge impact on a lot of people. So can you kind of - sort of set the scene? 2007...

BLANCHFLOWER: Sure.

ROSALSKY: ...What was that paper?

BLANCHFLOWER: Well, I'd started to work with a number of colleagues on trying to think about these patterns in happiness data, and three things stood out. The first one, we just talked about - that unemployment impacts happiness. Being married impacts it. But one of the things we saw - very easily saw in the data was that happiness is high when you're young, is high when you're old. But there's a trough in the middle. So there's this U shape. So this is what's drove it. I'm particularly interested in deepening (ph) case. I've talked about deaths of despair. And particularly, we've seen a crisis in America of suicides, especially in drug poisoning deaths, amongst the prime age and particularly prime-age, less-educated folk. And there's that issue around the world.

So that was really kind of the starting point, and I've done this study of 132 countries. And what I find when I average it all together, in advanced countries, the nadir, if you like, the low point of this happiness, is at 47. And when you do it for developing countries - I've got 95 developing countries I do it for - very similar - about 48.2 So around 48 - that seemed to be right. And what's interesting over the last couple of weeks - I've been talking a lot about this - lots of people have called me and tweeted to me and so on and said, wow, that really fits my life.

VANEK SMITH: So I - you've talked about this a little bit, but I'd love to get, like, really specific. So what is it that is causing this, do you think? I mean, like, what is it about - I guess it - was it 47.2?

BLANCHFLOWER: Yeah. Well...

VANEK SMITH: What is it that's going on that's making people unhappy at that age?

BLANCHFLOWER: Well, I think if you look back - I mean, I'm a professor, so I have lots of young people. I teach these young folks. And they're - and they've left home. And they come through the university, and they suddenly realize there's more than one way to cook an egg. But all of that is pretty darn tough, especially these days where - think of student loans and having to try and buy a house. What are you going to do with all of that stuff?

This is really hard, but it - I mean, in a sense, what's interesting about it is this phenomena appears to be true everywhere. It's not unique to Germany, Japan, the U.S. and Canada. You see it in African countries. You see it in Latin America. You see it in Thailand. So I think it's something that's - that people are experiencing. And then eventually, I think what happens is people get real. I mean - and some of the work I've written said when you get to mid-50s, your aspirations start to become real.

ROSALSKY: When I was talking to you, you were in the Florida mangroves. And...

BLANCHFLOWER: Right.

VANEK SMITH: Really?

ROSALSKY: Yes. And you were...

BLANCHFLOWER: Right.

ROSALSKY: ...Fishing, right? And that day, you had caught a fish, right? The - what kind of fish...

BLANCHFLOWER: Yeah.

ROSALSKY: ...Was it again?

BLANCHFLOWER: It was a 28-inch, 20-pound redfish.

ROSALSKY: That's...

VANEK SMITH: Whoa. Really?

ROSALSKY: Yeah. And - so you sent me this picture, and it's a picture just for listeners out there who want to picture it. You're just - you look beaming. You look so happy. You're...

BLANCHFLOWER: (Laughter).

VANEK SMITH: I want to see the picture.

ROSALSKY: Yeah.

BLANCHFLOWER: It's a great picture.

ROSALSKY: You're holding the fish. But I have to say this, professor Blanchflower. So we published this article - right? - and it goes on the Web. And Twitter being Twitter...

BLANCHFLOWER: Yeah.

ROSALSKY: ...I had somebody tweet at me, and they said this - how are we supposed to trust any of this Blanchflower guy's work when he blatantly lies about fishing? That red is nowhere near 20 pounds - closer to eight to 10 pounds. So any response...

BLANCHFLOWER: No, it was not.

ROSALSKY: ...To Hayden (ph) on Twitter?

BLANCHFLOWER: I mean, the - it doesn't really rely on the size of the fish, which is what I said. It relies on the fact that I looked awfully happy.

ROSALSKY: You sound happy. You're on the upward swing of your happiness curve.

BLANCHFLOWER: Well, I'm - yes, I've come to see my son. I'm having a wedding party today. So...

VANEK SMITH: Oh.

BLANCHFLOWER: I'm in deep Louisiana. But your children bring you joy. They - I've got grandkids. And you know, life improves.

VANEK SMITH: This episode of THE INDICATOR was produced by Nadia Lewis, fact-checked by Brittany Cronin, edited by Paddy Hirsch. And THE INDICATOR is a production of NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF DROP ELECTRIC SONG, "WAKING UP TO THE FIRE")

Copyright © 2020 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.