November 9, 2012

The J-Curve Of Happiness

A J curve graph illustrates an initial drop in the quantity measured, followed by a rise that is greater and more sustained than the fall. This is why J curve situations can be your friend - over time you reach a point greater than when you started. This promising relationship shows up in many areas of life.

If the relative performance we are measuring is happiness, as did a large survey in 2008, it appears to form the classic J curve. A recent study analyzed the survey data with potentially surprising results - something about aging makes us happier.

Gallup Pole Results

Starting on the left of the J curve graph at age 18, we are generally feeling pretty good about life. But as we leave the freedom and creativity of childhood and venture out into the "real world", our level of happiness drops.

General happiness among the 340,000 Americans surveyed, bottomed out at age 50, then started an upward trend. By age 85, survey participants were at the right side of the graph, and were more satisfied with life than the 18 year olds. Participants experienced a drop in stress and anger from age 22 onwards, while worrying elevated through middle age, then declined.

A J curve relationship leads to performance that exceeds the original starting point
after an initial, and brief drop

As a soon-to-be 51 year old, I find this information heartening, but not surprising. It is reflected in my own experience, and I look forward to my voyage up the long arm of the curve.

Implementing personal change can also follow the J curve. It is that initial drop that often prevents us from making changes - we know that an increase in discomfort is a natural part of the trend, and that creates fear.

But getting all that gain on the J curve, also means that initial bit of pain, and you don't want to quit just before things were promising to improve.

Getting On The J Curve

This has also shown itself in my experience in association with changing from a fast-paced, modern life of careers, commutes, and consumerism, to one more simple and removed from mainstream pursuits. When Linda and I initially launched our dedicated downsizing in 2000 it gave us a dropping feeling in the pit of our guts, like jumping out of an airplane.

There was an initial drop in our comfort level as we learned to adapt to our new circumstances. For a while it was scary and things were uncertain. But then our bottom point was reached, and there was no further increase in our discomfort. We began to enjoy our new situation, and the challenges it provided. It began to feel right.

With continued patience and commitment to our project, things began to turn around. Our life began to evolve and we started toward levels of performance not previously realized, or even thought possible.

Our simple life was delivering abundance, and all on the J curve. After the initial drop we found the upward trend in many areas of our simple existence:
  • amount of time to enjoy life 
  • level of creativity 
  • sense of calmness
  • enjoyment
  • contentment
  • happiness
Or could that be the positive effects of aging? Either way, patience and perseverance pay off.

When things are difficult and we wonder if we have done the right thing, it might be useful to visualize being at the bottom of the J curve.

If we persevere things get better, and often, they get better than they were before.


  1. As a 54 year old I can certainly attest to the fact that happiness and contemtment have increased with age. I wouldn't want to go back, unless of course I could tell that younger self "Hang in there, life gets better!"

    1. In our culture we find it hard to believe that there are any benefits to aging. It is physicality over wisdom.

      Why fight the inevitable? I am embracing the joy of aging (although I'm glad I embraced my youth with equal vigor).

  2. I love this. I just spent a year and a half breaking up with someone whom I still loved (because I knew I wasn't truly happy deep down), moving across the country and back, starting my own business, and losing friends at all points along the way (showing me more who my true friends are) -- and yet, though the dip in the curve was rather huge for me (and almost killed me-- no kidding!), I'm starting to feel the upward climb (still a bit in the dip, but, you know, right at the end), and I am sure enjoying it. I have optimism and hope for the upward climb-- I see my father in his 60s and how content and peaceful he is compared to his childhood (and compared to when he raised me! hahaha). I'm looking forward to being older and (hopefully) wiser. ;)

    1. Glad you made it through and are on the way up. My father passed at 65, but the previous 15 years of his life were definitely his happiest. Like you said about your dad, he was content and peaceful.

      He also was a big proponent of simple living.

  3. AnonymousMay 06, 2013

    I saw this J-curve as how you described it, but I almost thought that at it's low-point, you could easily interpret it as the stuff people tell you straight out of college, that you must "work buy consume die" to make it in the so-called 'real' world OR ELSE! and that when you awaken to the bullsh!t of all that consumption and media-feeding and so forth, then the contentment rises, the happiness rises, the worries begin to abate...and you learn that consensus reality is not always ....real...or right, and it just gets better when you age because the wisdom is planted in your mind.

    1. Yes, yes, yes! After that awakening there is no turning back. Then there is the hard work that must be done to bring your life in line with your newly acquired knowledge.

      Change is usually always somewhat uncomfortable, but we can not let that stop us from creating lives we feel better about.

      When we fearlessly move ahead with our wisdom it takes us to the heights of experience. We move from a passive existence to one that is creatively engaged and active.

      Freedom results!


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