The Happiness Curve

Patrick Foley, CFP

Author, Winning at Retirement

Share on Twitter
Share on LinkedIn
Share through Email

When my financial planning partner Kristin Hillsley and I set out to write the book that would become Winning at Retirement, we started with a research project. We wanted to find out what factors were most influential in determining happiness in retirement.

The good news, as we soon learned by combing through data on the subject, is that many people are quite happy in their Peak Stage.

According to a 2015 study from the Brookings Institution, just under half of retirees describe themselves as “very satisfied,” while a study from the Employee Benefit Research Institute found that more people describe themselves as “very happy” at 69 than at any other age.

That is exciting news! The fact is, we should not look at retirement (or even aging) with a sense of dread. In future articles I’ll talk about a multitude of actions, attitudes, and factors that can increase your odds of being happy later in life.

But for now I want to focus on the uplifting fact that humans seem to be biologically predisposed to grow happier as we age. This seems counterintuitive. Few of us would think of aging as a positive thing.

However, as described in the book The Happiness Curve: Why Life Gets Better After Midlife, there is a clear age-dependent trend that has been revealed in studies of cultures across the globe.

We tend to be at a high level of happiness in our early 20s. That much is hardly surprising. It is a time of infinite opportunity, relative health, and boundless energy. Then happiness tends to decline, reaching a low point around age 50. Again, this fits with preconceived notions … as the concept of “midlife crisis” around that age is well known.

Related: Health & Retirement

But then, and this is the uplifting part (particularly for those of us in the lower part of the curve), happiness tends to reverse into an upward trajectory that lasts into our 80s.
How do we explain this phenomenon? I was initially tempted to think in terms of the logistics of life.

Our twenties is a time of minimal responsibility, when mortality is a fairly abstract notion. By our 50s, mortality is not so abstract, and we may be beset by family and career stresses. Perhaps in retirement as the pressure of supporting a family has faded, and we put career rigors behind us, happiness springs from a sense of freedom.

Hopefully that is a factor. But according to The Happiness Curve, the trend has even been observed in primates. Besides, happiness doesn’t level out at retirement age, it apparently keeps on increasing well beyond it.

Of course, these are just trends, not absolutes that will apply to all people.

But this is extraordinarily hopeful information. We should proactively seek to maximize post-career happiness through a focus on health and wellness, sound financial practices, and an intentional search for purpose throughout life.

It’s great to know that no matter what, from a biological standpoint, the wind should be at our back as we seek retirement bliss.

Benjamin Hotel
Benjamin Hotel


Patrick Foley, CFP

Patrick Foley, a Certified Financial Planner™ certificant with Baird, has been advising clients toward happy retirements for nearly 30 years.

With his partner Kristin Hillsley, Pat co-authored Winning at Retirement, and Winning at Retirement: First Responder Edition.

He lives in Philadelphia with his wife, two daughters, and their two crazy dogs.