Data: Inform, Confirm and the Happiness Curve

“You don’t have the problem you think you have. It looks like employee satisfaction has trended down for the last three years and that’s the wrong conclusion. Look at the data by age, it follows the happiness curve1. University hiring freezes shifted your age demographics. The number of people between 35 and 55 has increased 20% worldwide. Employee satisfaction has actually increased.” Histrionics ensued as I concluded my last recommendation for work life balance. Who was I to challenge the interpretation of Human Resource data? I was just supposed to give a perspective on how to improve employee satisfaction; not be a disruptor. That’s the power of analytics.

Data is data, the analytics are the game changer. Data can inform or confirm. The data doesn’t change, but the subsequent actions do. Like a flat tire. A flat tire means low pressure. The low pressure can inform you simply need air in the tire OR it confirms tire damage. Same data different actions. Air in a damaged tire is useless. While this is obvious with tires, there are other times in life when the wrong conclusion leads to futile efforts.

See Footnote 2

Sometimes, we miss the obvious. There are books, articles based on research of the happiness curve.3 You can be a data analyst. Where do you fall with respect to age in the happiness curve? If you think of your interactions with respect to age, are there trends or patterns? Do your experiences inform or confirm our experience of the happiness curve? This week consider the happiness curve.

Foot Notes on the Happiness Curve

1We all want to be happy, don’t we? Well, if you’re dissatisfied, frustrated or downright miserable, cheer up. There’s apparently a cure for you. Even better, it will materialize automatically. Just sit and wait; the very anticipation of its arrival might improve your spirits. The remedy: getting older.

It’s counterintuitive. In our mind’s eye, old age is to be endured as much as enjoyed. People fear declining health, growing dependence and increasing social isolation. But on average, they also count themselves happier. Consult public opinion surveys, and that’s what you find. Almost 40 percent of Americans 65 and older rated themselves “very happy” compared with only 33 percent of those 35 to 49, report surveys by the National Opinion Research Center (NORC) at the University of Chicago.

Washington Post

2When correlated with age, the data for overall satisfaction with life yielded a U-shaped pattern. People who were around age 20 felt relatively good about their situations; those in their 20s, 30s, and 40s gave increasingly less positive assessments. But after age 50, there was a shift, with overall well-being trending upward again (see the graphic). Current feelings, or hedonic well-being, showed patterns that differed depending on the particular emotion. Stress and anger declined steadily from the youngest group through the oldest respondents, but worry didn’t begin to drop off until around age 50. Sadness rose to a modest peak among those around age 50, then fell back and leveled off. Enjoyment and happiness decreased gradually until age 50, then rose until about age 70, and leveled off or declined slightly. In both hedonic and global well-being, the age-related trends were similar for women and men — although women reported more stress, worry, and sadness at all ages. These findings held up even after the researchers took into account other factors associated with age, including marital and employment status and whether there were children at home.

Harvard Women’s health Watch

3Why does happiness tend to get harder in your 40s? Why do you feel in a slump when you’re successful? Where does this malaise come from? Most important: will it ever end?

Drawing on cutting-edge science and human stories, The Happiness Curve shows that happiness follows a U-shaped trajectory, declining from the optimism of youth into what’s often a long, low slump in middle age before starting to rise again in our 50s—and then offering an unexpected bounty of contentment and wisdom.

The Happiness Curve doesn’t just illuminate the dark forest of midlife, it helps you find a path through the trees. It also shows how we can—and why we must—do more to help each other through the woods.

The Happiness Curve by Jonathan Rauch

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