At what age are people happiest? New research offers surprising clues

If you could be one age for the rest of your life, what would it be?

Would you choose to be nine years old, absolved of life’s most tedious responsibilities, and instead able to spend your days playing with friends and practising your times tables?

Or would you choose your early 20s, when time feels endless and the world is your oyster – with friends, travel, pubs and clubs beckoning?

Western culture idealises youth, so it may come as a surprise to learn that in a recent poll asking this question, the most popular answer wasn’t 9 or 23, but 36.

Yet as a developmental psychologist, I thought that response made a lot of sense.

For the last four years, I’ve been studying people’s experiences of their 30s and early 40s, and my research has led me to believe that this stage of life – while full of challenges – is much more rewarding than most might think.

The career and care crunch

When I was a researcher in my late 30s, I wanted to read more about the age period I was in. That was when I realised that no one was doing research on people in their 30s and early 40s, which puzzled me.

So much often happens during this time: Buying homes, getting married or getting divorced; building careers, changing careers, having children or choosing not to have children.

To study something, it helps to name it. So my colleagues and I named the period from ages 30 to 45 ‘established adulthood‘, and then set out to try to understand it better. While we are still collecting data, we have currently interviewed over 100 people in this age cohort, and have collected survey data from more than 600 additional people.

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We went into this large-scale project expecting to find that established adults were happy but struggling. We thought there would be rewards during this period of life – perhaps being settled in career, family and friendships, or peaking physically and cognitively – but also some significant challenges.

The main challenge we anticipated was what we called “the career and care crunch”.

This refers to the collision of workplace demands and demands of caring for others that takes place in your 30s and early 40s. Trying to climb a ladder in a chosen career while also being increasingly expected to care for kids, tend to the needs of partners, and perhaps care for ageing parents can create a lot of stress and work.

Yet when we started to look at our data, what we found surprised us.

Yes, people were feeling overwhelmed and talked about having too much to do in too little time. But they also talked about feeling profoundly satisfied. All of these things that were bringing them stress were also bringing them joy.

For example, Yuying, 44, said: “Even though there are complicated points of this time period, I feel very solidly happy in this space right now”. Nina, 39, simply described herself as being “wildly happy”. (The names used in this piece are pseudonyms, as required by research protocol.)

When we took an even closer look at our data, it started to become clear why people might wish to remain age 36 over any other age. People talked about being in the prime of their lives and feeling at their peak. After years of working to develop careers and relationships, people reported feeling as though they had finally arrived.

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Mark, 36, shared that, at least for him, “things feel more in place”.

“I’ve put together a machine that’s finally got all the parts it needs,” he said.