happiness over the life cycle

Students of ‘happiness’ invariably find the variable to be U-shaped over a person’s lifetime. People tend to become less and less happy until they reach middle age, usually around age 46. Then they regain happiness as they age. The British economist John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) is exceptional in that he suffered a midlife crisis at the tender age of 20.

The origins of that crisis lie in Mill’s remarkable upbringing. He was the subject of an extraordinary (and extraordinarily terrifying) experiment run by his father James, a friend and contemporary of the founder of utilitarianism, Jeremy Bentham. James set out to provide what his son described as the “highest order of intellectual education”, designed in accordance with the “principle of losing no time”. So by the age of three, Mill was learning Greek, and by the time he was seven, he was familiar with the dialogues of Plato. He started learning Latin at eight, and when he was 12, he was inducted into a course of study in logic, psychology and political economy.

The crash, when it came, was violent and profound. Mill [in his autobiography] asked himself: “Suppose that all your objects in life were realised; that all the changes in institutions and opinions which you are looking forward to, could be completely effected at this very instant: would this be a great joy and happiness to you?” He found himself drawn irresistibly to the answer, “No” — and with that “the whole foundation on which [his] life was constructed fell down.” ….

This is admittedly a very particular kind of crisis — one that tends to afflict over-achievers like [Kieran] Setiya himself.

Jonathan Derbyshire, “Think your way through middle age“, Financial Times, 24 November 2017 (gated paywall).

Mr Derbyshire (born 1945) is Executive comment editor at Financial Times. He is reviewing Midlife: A Philosophical Guide, by MIT philosopher Kieran Setiya (Princeton University Press, 2017) and two other recently published books on ageing: Aging Thoughtfully: Conversations About Retirement, Romance, Wrinkles, and Regret (Oxford University Press, 2017), by Martha C Nussbaum and Saul Levmore, and The Longevity Economy: Unlocking the World’s Fastest-Growing, Most Misunderstood Market (Public Affairs, 2017), by Joseph F Coughlin.

There is really no simple or single solution to the problem of unhappiness in middle age. My recommendation is to enjoy life in the present, rather than dwell on what could have been done in the past or might be possible in the future. Above all, do not push your children or grandchildren too hard. John Stuart Mill was a brilliant man, with many accomplishments. In addition to authoring the most widely read economics text of his day (Principles of Political Economy) and philosophical works such as On Liberty, he was an elected member of Parliament. But he was not a happy man, not even as a child.



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