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Is well-being U-shaped over the life cycle?

  • Blanchflower, David G.
  • Oswald, Andrew J.

We present evidence that psychological well-being is U-shaped through life. A difficulty with research on this issue is that there are likely to be omitted cohort effects (earlier generations may have been born in, say, particularly good or bad times). First, using data on 500,000 randomly sampled Americans and West Europeans, the paper designs a test that can control for cohort effects. Holding other factors constant, we show that a typical individual's happiness reaches its minimum - on both sides of the Atlantic and for both males and females - in middle age. Second, evidence is provided for the existence of a similar U-shape through the life-course in East European, Latin American and Asian nations. Third, a U-shape in age is found in separate well-being regression equations in 72 developed and developing nations. Fourth, using measures that are closer to psychiatric scores, we document a comparable well-being curve across the life cycle in 2 other data sets (1) in GHQ-N6 mental health levels among a sample of 16,000 Europeans, and (2) in reported depression-and-anxiety levels among 1 million UK citizens. Fifth, we discuss some apparent exceptions, particularly in developing nations, to the U-shape. Sixth, we note that American male birth-cohorts seem to have become progressively less content with their lives. Our results are based on regression equations in which other influences, such as demographic variables and income, are held constant.

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Article provided by Elsevier in its journal Social Science & Medicine.

Volume (Year): 66 (2008)
Issue (Month): 8 (April)
Pages: 1733-1749

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Handle: RePEc:eee:socmed:v:66:y:2008:i:8:p:1733-1749
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  1. Blanchflower, David G. & Oswald, Andrew J., 2007. "Hypertension and Happiness across Nations," The Warwick Economics Research Paper Series (TWERPS) 792, University of Warwick, Department of Economics.
  2. DiTella, Rafael & MacCulloch, Robert & Oswald, Andrew J., 1999. "The macroeconomics of happiness," ZEI Working Papers B 03-1999, ZEI - Center for European Integration Studies, University of Bonn.
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  8. Uppal, Sharanjit, 2006. "Impact of the timing, type and severity of disability on the subjective well-being of individuals with disabilities," Social Science & Medicine, Elsevier, vol. 63(2), pages 525-539, July.
  9. Blanchflower, David G., 2001. "Unemployment, Well-Being, and Wage Curves in Eastern and Central Europe," Journal of the Japanese and International Economies, Elsevier, vol. 15(4), pages 364-402, December.
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  16. Theodossiou, I., 1998. "The effects of low-pay and unemployment on psychological well-being: A logistic regression approach," Journal of Health Economics, Elsevier, vol. 17(1), pages 85-104, January.
  17. Andrew E. Clark & Andrew J. Oswald, 2006. "The curved relationship between subjective well-being and age," PSE Working Papers halshs-00590404, HAL.
  18. Winkelmann, Liliana & Winkelmann, Rainer, 1998. "Why Are the Unemployed So Unhappy? Evidence from Panel Data," Economica, London School of Economics and Political Science, vol. 65(257), pages 1-15, February.
  19. Bernd Hayo & Wolfgang Seifert, 2002. "Subjective Economic Well-Being in Eastern Europe," Development and Comp Systems 0203001, EconWPA.
  20. Clark, Andrew E., 2007. "Born To Be Mild? Cohort Effects Don’t (Fully) Explain Why Well-Being Is U-Shaped in Age," IZA Discussion Papers 3170, Institute for the Study of Labor (IZA).
  21. David G. Blanchflower & Andrew J. Oswald, 1997. "The Rising Well-Being of the Young," NBER Working Papers 6102, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  22. Oswald, Andrew J, 1997. "Happiness and Economic Performance," Economic Journal, Royal Economic Society, vol. 107(445), pages 1815-31, November.
  23. Michael A. Shields & Stephen Wheatley Price, 2005. "Exploring the economic and social determinants of psychological well-being and perceived social support in England," Journal of the Royal Statistical Society Series A, Royal Statistical Society, vol. 168(3), pages 513-537.
  24. Edward L. Glaeser & David Laibson & Bruce Sacerdote, 2002. "An Economic Approach to Social Capital," Economic Journal, Royal Economic Society, vol. 112(483), pages 437-458, November.
  25. Robert J. MacCulloch & Rafael Di Tella & Andrew J. Oswald, 2001. "Preferences over Inflation and Unemployment: Evidence from Surveys of Happiness," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 91(1), pages 335-341, March.
  26. Oswald, Andrew J. & Powdthavee, Nattavudh, 2008. "Does happiness adapt? A longitudinal study of disability with implications for economists and judges," Journal of Public Economics, Elsevier, vol. 92(5-6), pages 1061-1077, June.
  27. Paul Frijters & John P. Haisken-DeNew & Michael A. Shields, 2004. "Money Does Matter! Evidence from Increasing Real Income and Life Satisfaction in East Germany Following Reunification," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 94(3), pages 730-740, June.
  28. Easterlin, Richard A., 2006. "Life cycle happiness and its sources: Intersections of psychology, economics, and demography," Journal of Economic Psychology, Elsevier, vol. 27(4), pages 463-482, August.
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