Giles Fraser: Why life can begin at 46

12 January 2011

I am feeling terribly old. Those younger than me will no doubt think this about right; those older will think it ridiculous. The occasion for my middle-aged angst was the cover of an issue of The Economist last month, and its headline: “The joy of growing old (or why life begins at 46)”. A month into being 46, I had to read on.

The bad news is that we are apparently at our most unhappy at 46. This is the nadir, the bottom of the curve. The good news (for me) is that, after 46, statistics show that we get progressively happier.

The idea is that, at about 46, you are reconciled to your station in life, and no longer struggle to be some­thing other than what you are. At this age, you give up trying to impress people, or doing things that you don’t much enjoy in order to climb the greasy pole.

Apparently, women are generally happier than men. Neurotics are unhappy, while extroverts are happy. People with children at home are unhappier. Educated people are generally happier than those less well educated — though this may have more to do with the fact that educated people are generally richer.

The money aspect is interesting. I have to admit that I have preached a number of sermons quoting the statistic that, after your annual income reaches $15,000, you don’t get all that much happier if it rises. Poverty is horrible, but the bar is set pretty low. It is a good sermon point at bonus time in the City.

The point made by Professor Richard Easterlin, an economist at the University of Southern California in the 1970s, was that absolute wealth is not as significant as relative wealth. Happiness is more about how we measure up to the Jonses.

Yet more recent work tends to suggest that people who live in rich countries are much happier than those in poor ones. But do we really need economists to tell us that the Brits and the Danes are happier than people living in Iraq or Haiti? Is that really just about money?

An old friend, now sadly deceased, Professor Michael Argyll, was an expert in the study of happiness. His two prescriptions for a happy life were: go to church, and take up Scottish country dancing. Now I can’t say I am a fan of the Gay Gordons. But dancing does suggest a level of fitness and a commitment to sociability that, I can believe, are indicators of mental well-being.

As for going to church, I can think of a great many gloomy types in the pews — many of them older than 46. One cleric in the diocese of London has the motto: “Smile first thing in the morning. Get it over with.” Happy is not really a theological category. Perhaps it is only when you stop trying to be happy that you find out how.

The Revd Dr Giles Fraser is Canon Chancellor of St Paul’s Cathedral and Director of the St Paul’s Institute.

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