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At what age will you be happiest?

11:00 Wed May 2 2012
Hugh Wilson
At what age will you be happiest?
Things seem to be going pretty well for this bloke. (Thinkstock)

Are men happiest in their 30s as a new study suggests, or can we be happy at any age?

A new study claims the age when most of us are happiest is 33.

That might sound surprising. After all, some people say that school days are the best days of your life (usually people long past their school days), while others point to the carefree, stimulating years at college or university or in a first job.

In fact, if you read through scientific literature on happiness, it seems every age has its pros and cons. Here's what men can expect happiness-wise at every age.

Young men are not always happiest
It's a common assumption that being in your 20s must be the best years of your life, and it's true that being young has a lot going for it.

You're generally fitter and healthier than you'll ever be. You're not weighed down with responsibilities like family. That lack of responsibility means you can party, travel and learn for learning's sake, pretty much to your heart's content.

It's also true that you'll likely be dating girls also in their 20s, who will never look sexier.

But, while psychologists recognise the advantages youthful men have, the real picture is far less black and white. In a study conducted by the Pew Research Center, men aged 20-29 were reported as the least happy age group of all.

There are a number of reasons for this, say researchers. Young men seem more affected by negative emotions, so that good times may bring whopping highs, but bad times bring anxiety and introspection.

But what have young men got to worry about? Lacklustre love lives and low-paying first jobs, experts say. After college, they're competing in a tough job market and are never quite sure they'll get to where they want to go. Life seems full of opportunities, but also potential pitfalls.

All in all, for men at least, the 20s can be a bit of a mixed bag.

Are your 30s the happy decade?
According to the latest study, your 30s are a golden decade, with 33 the pick of the lot. But nobody looks forward to turning 30, so why might that be?

Seven out of 10 people over the age of 40 picked the year they turned 33 as their happiest in a survey by website Friends Reunited. Over half of those surveyed said life was most fun at that age and over 40 per cent said they were most optimistic about the future.

It's the combination of these two factors that seem to make 33 such a happy age.

"By this age, innocence has been lost, but our sense of reality is mixed with a strong sense of hope, a 'can do' spirit and a healthy belief in our own talents and abilities," says psychologist Donna Dawson. "We have yet to develop the cynicism and world-weariness that comes with later years."

But it's not all good news for 30-somethings. A study published in the Journal of Happiness Studies in 2009 found that women were happier than men in both their 20s and 30s.

"We think we have a good understanding of why women start off happier — they make that transition to adulthood much easier than men," said psychologist Tom Smith.

In their 30s, men are still struggling professionally, with the added possibility that they've got mortgages and kids to pay for.

Women do too, of course, but there's a suggestion they may handle it better, at least as far as happiness goes. Men may still be optimistic about the future and many still enjoy a good party, but many struggle with the onset of 'real' adult life.

Nevertheless, it seems that, overall, men do reasonably well in their 30s. But then, on the horizon, lies the big one: middle age.

Are 40s the decade of the mid-life crisis?
So you hit 40 and, in the stereotype of the 40-something man, you'll now buy too-tight jeans and a cheap sports car, unsuccessfully try to chat up 20-something women, and drown your sorrows in a spiralling whisky habit.

There is some evidence to support that view. In a UK survey published in February of this year regarding 80,000 people's happiness, the Office for National Statistics found that men aged 45-49 are the unhappiest. Middle-aged men living in London were particularly unhappy, the survey found.

Why might these men be so unhappy? Does the above mean that men of this age living in Auckland or Wellington have the same thoughts?

The financial strain of growing families and the stress of having teenage kids may be partly to blame. Women have these stressors too, of course, but the ONS survey found that women routinely put higher worth on things they do in their lives.

In other words, they counter the stress with a higher sense of satisfaction about their achievements.

But again, this tale of miserable men is not the whole story. One study found that the midlife crisis is something of a myth, and that men have more friends and social connections in their 40s than in other decades.

And the Journal of Happiness Studies research found that, by 48, men had closed the happiness gap with women. Researchers have suggested that men get happier after about 45 because the pressure of career advancement reduces. They have reached as high as they're likely to get, and no longer care too much about the rat race.

50 and beyond
When men reach their 50s, and even more so when they hit 60 and beyond, health concerns come into play. There may also be worries about retirement and the life that it might bring. Retirement might be good for some men, but for others it can bring listless, meandering days — and even poverty.

So in popular imagination, by 60 or so we've turned into grumpy old men. Happily, that doesn't chime with research.

In fact, the Pew Research Center study found that of all age groups, men who are between 60 and 69 are happiest. A Canadian study even found that men in their 80s and even 90s are happier than many young people.

How can that be? Other studies have discovered that as people age, they seek out situations that will lift their moods. While younger people expect to be happy, older people actively seek happiness out, increasing their likelihood of getting it.

And a recent study from Stanford University found that older people tended to be more emotionally stable, a trait that leads to happiness.

"As people age, they're more emotionally balanced and better able to solve highly emotional problems," said psychologist Laura Carstensen, who lead the research. "Our findings suggest that it doesn't matter when you were born. In general, people get happier as they get older."

Happy at any age
It seems that all ages have their good and bad points, at least as far as general happiness is concerned. And the good news is that it means you can be happy at any age, if you pick what makes each age group happy and apply it to your own life.

So you need to have fun and a belief in your own abilities. But don't get too frustrated if your career progression is slower than you'd like, and instead appreciate what you've achieved up to now and revel in the things that really make you happy — friends and family being chief among them.

Finally, seek out happiness rather than waiting for it to come to you. Join a club, go to the gym, use a dating site — whatever it takes. And whatever your age, take comfort in the fact that the best is probably still to come.

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