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A line from an old song by Donovan says “Happiness runs in a circular motion …”

Actually, scientists say, happiness follows a U-shaped path. A recent study shows that people are happiest their younger and older years, and most miserable during middle age. The study, which incorporated data from two million people in 80 nations, found that people are least happy (or most depressed) at about age 44. In the U.S., women are gloomiest at age 40, while men hit the bottom around 50.

The researchers, at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H., and the University of Warwick in Coventry, England, weren’t sure what to make of the data, because it happens around the world and across the board: to men and women, to single and married people, to rich and poor and to people with and without children.

Andrew Oswald of Warwick said “one possibility is that individuals learn to adapt to their strengths and weaknesses, and in midlife quell their infeasible aspirations” — which sounds a lot like jargon for recognizing limitations and giving up on dreams, which can be pretty depressing.

Several factors come to mind — it’s my observation folks in middle age tend to have the most responsibilities and stress in regard to both family and work. They’re deepest in debt, and under the greatest pressure to perform. Their bodies are beginning to show the inexorable effects of aging, and they begin to realize that dreams of sailing around the world, hiking to Machu Picchu, or exploring the Galapagos may never happen.

Younger folks still have so much energy and so much life ahead of them that happiness comes easier. Older folks, generally, have learned to make peace with their place in life, and inner peace is directly correlated to a sense of happiness.

I’ve always said that growing old is not a bad thing and certainly beats the alternative. There’s more to being old than holding an AARP card and getting senior discounts. The psalmist spoke of faithful folk in their senior years: “In old age they still produce fruit; they are always green and full of sap” (Psalm 92:14, NRSV). Speak at as many senior adult events as I have, and you’ll see what I mean.

So, if you’re middle-aged and miserable, don’t let those sore knees and cranky co-workers get you down — you can’t get any younger, but getting old is really a good thing.

[Photo of Machu Picchu from andreweland.org.]

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