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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. Di Tella, R. & MacCulloch, R.J.: Oswald, A.J., 1997. "The Macroeconomics of Happiness," Papers 19, Centre for Economic Performance & Institute of Economics.
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  7. Clark, Andrew E. & Oswald, Andrew J. & Warr, Peter B., 1994. "Is job satisfaction u-shaped in age ?," CEPREMAP Working Papers (Couverture Orange) 9407, CEPREMAP.
  8. 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.
  9. Oswald, Andrew J. & Powdthavee, Nattavudh, 2007. "Obesity, Unhappiness, and The Challenge of Affluence: Theory and Evidence," IZA Discussion Papers 2717, Institute for the Study of Labor (IZA).
  10. Frijters, Paul & Haisken-DeNew, John P. & Shields, Michael A., 2005. "The causal effect of income on health: Evidence from German reunification," Journal of Health Economics, Elsevier, vol. 24(5), pages 997-1017, September.
  11. 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).
  12. Blanchflower, D-G & Oswald, A-J, 1997. "The Rising Well-Being of the Young," Papers 16, Centre for Economic Performance & Institute of Economics.
  13. 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.
  14. Blanchflower, David G. & Oswald, Andrew J., 2004. "Well-being over time in Britain and the USA," Journal of Public Economics, Elsevier, vol. 88(7-8), pages 1359-1386, July.
  15. Gerlach, Knut & Stephan, Gesine, 1996. "A paper on unhappiness and unemployment in Germany," Economics Letters, Elsevier, vol. 52(3), pages 325-330, September.
  16. Hayo, Bernd & Seifert, Wolfgang, 2002. "Subjective economic well-being in Eastern Europe," IBES Diskussionsbeiträge 120, University of Duisburg-Essen, Institute of Business and Economic Studie (IBES).
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  26. 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.
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