Your Satisfaction Will Follow “U”

Josh Ashkinaze, Columnist

In late March, somebody on Reddit posted a question: “What event divided your life into ‘before’ and ‘after’?” One answer was, “I think I’m still in the ‘before’ stage of my life, if I’m being honest.” And this resonated with me because I probably am too. But it would be nice to know when and what my bifurcating experience will be. For seniors and fifth-years, college graduation is approaching. Is that a life-dividing experience? What experience will be life-changing, making me noticeably better or worse off afterwards? As it turns out, many events that should drastically change people’s lives are not reflected in measures of satisfaction. In the end, most people’s life satisfaction follows a consistent pattern.

Most events that you think would be cataclysmic and paradigm-shifting really aren’t. Psychiatrists Thomas Holmes and Richard Rahe developed a 1967 questionnaire, the Social Readjustment Rating Scale, for identifying 43 major life events that are correlated with illness. To test its validity, 2500 male U.S. sailors filled out a self-report questionnaire and had their health records recorded for a six month tour. There was a relatively weak (0.0118) correlation. Or consider that Gallup reported that subjective well-being for Chinese people stayed pretty flat throughout their tremendous economic boom period. Gallup also showed that African Americans have higher average life satisfaction than white Americans, despite the former being, on average, poorer than the latter. Economists love measuring economic growth; psychologists love measuring happiness. Still, graphs plotting the relationship between a country’s GDP and its citizens’ happiness show a surprisingly nuanced relationship in which more money doesn’t necessarily mean more or fewer problems. So it’s not easy to predict how specific material conditions or events will impact people.

What about existential crises (topical to college students, who claim to enter an existential crisis every finals season)? Even the quarter-life crisis — a vague realization of despair, anxiety, and hopelessness at age 25 — is largely a myth. A 2011 study published in The Journal of Genetic Psychology: Research and Theory on Human Development followed recent high school and college grads in the workforce as well as current undergraduate and graduate students. According to their self-reports, there was no sudden dip in mental health and satisfaction for recent college grads compared to any of the other groups that were followed. Correlations between well-being and life satisfaction weren’t particular events like graduating from college without a job. Rather, they were general circumstances, like social support from family and friends. Even graduating into a bad economy doesn’t reliably predict a personal crisis.

In short, many things that are thought to have a certain impact on people’s lives really don’t. But, in all of this inconsistency, there is one neat little trend that is remarkably consistent: lifelong well-being is consistently U-shaped across cultures. Researchers even found that the U-shape also held true for 508 great apes. A 2010 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences shows that happiness in America follows the “U” closely, as well. Enjoyment and happiness descend in middle age, then pick up. The early 20s are stressful. Stress drops quickly. Middle age is sad, but post-middle age to death is much less so. The U-shape holds for both Western and nonWestern countries, implying that the curve is not due to something like shared generational or cultural experience. It holds true if you control for many other variables, like income, as well.

So for most people — for the vast majority who don’t have a kidney failure, who won’t go to jail, who won’t travel through space — there won’t be a single life-dividing event. There will be something like a pointillist-painted “U,” with each experience as a dot. This is unfortunate for seniors graduating on May 22 who are staring down the barrel of a probable drop in satisfaction, approaching the downward-accelerating left curve of the “U.” But take solace. Like most others, you will wind up on the high point of the right curve — and perhaps it’s not so bad that any single event won’t make a difference.