Recent studies affirm the His Holiness’ the Dalai Lama’s observation. In a landmark report, the Origins of Happiness, researchers at the London School of Economics (LSE) attempted to quantify how factors such as income, employment, health and family life influence a person’s level of happiness. The authors concluded that mental health explains more of the variance of happiness than income.
“I see clients in their 40s, 50s and 60s with all their material needs being met—private schools for the kids, second homes, fancy cars, vacations—and these are some of the loneliest people,” says Sari Shaicovitch, a Toronto-based therapist and social worker. From her experience, there is a false belief that money will provide happiness. “Social support is the primary determinant of happiness, longevity and better health—mental and physical,” she says.
According to the LSE study, having a partner contributes to happiness and a “partner” does not only mean a husband or wife. “It’s having someone in your life who loves you unconditionally. For many this could be an intimate partner, but it can also be a sister, friend or cousin.”
Though it may seem counterintuitive, the LSE study showed that even as incomes and education levels have continued to rise in the West, aggregate happiness has not risen in tandem. There is some evidence that people who compare their incomes with others are less happy when they perceive themselves to have less.
“Sometimes when we see what others have, we want that life, but forget that money does not bring fulfilling relationships. From what I see in my practice, it all comes down to having a good emotional support network,” says Shaicovitch.
Age does seem to be an important factor in happiness. In the recent study, Do Humans Suffer a Psychological Low in Midlife?, the researchers examined the psychological well-being of 1.3 million people worldwide between the ages of 20 to 90. Their conclusion: happiness follows a U-shape over a lifetime. People are happiest in their late teens and early 20s, hit an all-time low around their early 50s and then rebound into their retirement years and beyond.
“Mid-life is a particularly stressful time. People are balancing work stress, aging parents, and teenagers.” There can also be a growing awareness of their own mortality and a need to evaluate their life purpose. Women, particularly, experiencing menopause, so there are strong physiological changes in addition to psychological changes.
As much as we need to take care of our financial well-being, these studies remind us to invest in our personal relationships with family, friends and/or partner. Emotional health and wellbeing are paramount to life satisfaction. Social comparisons are big contributors to misery. It is human nature to compare your income with that of others. Yet, while someone’s life may appear “perfect”, you never know how happy she really is. This is a lesson for all of us. We need to clarify the income level that will meet our needs and wants and, once we have the means to achieve that, to prioritize personal connections.
Finally, if you are in your late 40s to mid-50s and feeling low, remember that mid-life dissatisfaction is normal— and that it will pass.