Saturday, February 16, 2008

Does risk of death cause happiness?

Two university professors have just completed a truly huge survey of two million people from various countries. The question: how does happiness change through your life? The result is a graph shaped a bit like a bath-tub. The youngest are very happy, but as the toddlers start to age, they become less happy. The nadir for women is about 40 years of age, and about 50 for men. The graph moves optimistically upwards after that, at least until the grim reaper unsportingly interrupts the survey process. Naturally, any individual’s own experience might well differ markedly from this, but the fact remains that on average these perceptions of happiness are what most people experience.

When I read the paper, I thought about some work I’d done in survival analysis. SA is a statistical technique often used in medical statistics to work out probability of infection or recovery, given what’s known about a particular patient. The probabilities are based on a large number of previously recorded cases so that a comparison can be made. Drawing a graph for the probability (or risk) of death shows, yes, a bath-tub effect. The neo-natals are at higher risk of death than toddlers, and so on. The graph slopes downwards, but then goes upwards again as we age. And of course there is the inevitable snipping of the thin-spun life. The end of the line.

Putting the two bath-tub graphs side by side I was interested in the similarity of their shape. Is there anything to the similarity? I don’t have the data used in the happiness survey, but maybe I’ll ask for a copy of it. It would be interesting to match an individual’s perception of his or her happiness at any point in time with the risk of death that that individual was facing.

Less formally, I’d like to advance some ideas for why the two graphs look the same. For a start, kids should be happy, being pretty much ignorant of any of the nastier things in life. Life for them is literally boundless, and every day brings exciting new knowledge. Some of the excitement might have worn off a bit by the early thirties, ground down by the sheer dailiness of life, the struggle to keep things going. At the same time, those in their thirties still think they’ll live for ever, and risk of death is, it’s true, low in relative terms. Perhaps their confidence in the continuation of life means taking life for granted, and so there isn’t the desire to experience the moment. It’s hard to be all transcendental when the mortgage payments are late.

So far, so obvious. But why does the happiness curve start going upwards along with risk of death? Being someone who is beginning to feel a chill wind on my shoulder, I am particularly interested in this point. Anthony Storr’s Solitude: A Return to the Self has some answers. His book is primarily about creative people and their need to be alone to do their best work, but he does some interesting remarks about happiness and aging. He points out that emotional dependence begins to decline with age, and as one ages inter-personal relationships don’t matter as much. Emotional dependence is replaced by an interest in one’s own internal concerns. Storr suggests that this is why grandparents and grandchildren often get on better than parents and children: they expect less of each other.

Getting older also seems to allow the individual to swim along with life, rather than trying to fight against the flow. There is a well-known letter from a former patient to CJ Jung which captures this very well:

‘So now I intend to play the game of life, being receptive to whatever comes to me, good and bad, sun and shadow forever alternating, and in this way, also accepting my own nature with its positive and negative sides. Thus everything becomes more alive to me. What a fool I was! How I tried to force everything to go according to the way I thought it ought.’

The two university professors offer their suggestions for the upward slope. Their surmises are purely conjectures of course, because they lack the data to be able to test them. They suppose that by mid-life, individuals have come to hold a more realistic view of what they can and cannot do. This conjecture matches the patient who wrote to Jung. Their other conjectures are that more cheerful people live longer, so that the boring old misery-guts types have died out by their fifties’ leaving only us cheery old ‘uns to carry on. Unfortunately this is not empirically true, although one would certainly wish it was, at least for the aged whiner who bores me on the bus every day. Their third conjecture is more philosophical: they write “I have seen school-friends die and come to value my blessings during my remaining years”.

Naturally I am delighted by the thought that my life might get even happier, but I can’t help feeling that just being grateful to be alive misses something. Surely there is more than that? How about being more willing to take risks because you know you’re going to snuff it soon anyway? I’m planning on getting back to pipe-smoking and drinking absinthe. Catch me if you can!

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