Want to Know What Age You’ll Be Happiest? Check out This Chart

That same pattern is seen in chimps and orangutans, primatologists say.

There are many points of view on what exactly happiness is. Is it being successful, having close friends and a loving family, long stretches of contentment, or reaching your own life goals? If you define it as contentment with life, you may be surprised at what age(s) most people find it. There’s often more than one peak. According to a series of seven surveys recently digested and charted, most people are happiest around age 20.

Happiness drops down from then on, reaching its lowest point in middle-age, only to rise again around retirement. The results of this sweeping evaluation were published in a report by the National Bureau of Economic Research. 1.3 million randomly selected people from 51 different countries, took part in one of seven surveys. These included the General Social Survey taken by 54,000 Americans, the Understanding Society survey taken by 416,000 British, and the European Social Survey taken by 316,000 Europeans, from 32 different countries.

Respondents were asked questions about their psychological health and well-being. All participants were between the ages of 20 and 90. When examining the data, researchers took two approaches. The first was straightforward and the second accounted for other influences, such as income and health. People were asked in two different ways about their level of contentment. In one, they were asked if they were happy or unhappy, and in the other, their level of life satisfaction.

Researchers took a large cross-section from each survey and compared happiness and life-satisfaction, using both evaluation methods. With each and across seven data sets, they received the same result, what’s called “a midlife low.” The data formed a U-shaped graph. So far, there’s been no explanation as to why life contentment is shaped like this. Though satisfaction sinks from age 20 onward, things pick up again around 50, and throughout retirement and old age people report ever-growing happiness.

Some things to know about this chart: the absolute values aren’t comparable. Also, what’s important is the shape of the curves. Even if people report lower happiness in their 40s and 50s, that doesn’t mean they’re miserable. For instance, in one survey, people in their 40s rated their life satisfaction 7 out of 10, or 3.5 out of 5. But that’s still significantly lower than those in their 20s reported.

The U-shaped curve has been around since the 1990s. And researching happiness isn’t new. Richard Easterlin at the University of Pennsylvania was the first in America to emulate happiness studies abroad. He discovered the Easterlin paradox, or the point where rich countries no longer gain more happiness from attaining greater wealth.

In the ‘90s David Blanchflower of Dartmouth University and Andrew Oswald of the University of Warwick, began conducting international studies on life satisfaction. They noticed this U-shape pattern emerging, present throughout nations across the world. Since then, primatologists have found chimpanzees and orangutans suffer the U-shaped curve as well. Apes generally hit bottom around ages 45-50. So this phenomenon may emanate from our primate past.

Chimps and orangutans also deal with a midlife crisis. Credit: Getty Images.

What this study does is offer the strongest and most sweeping evidence yet that the U-shaped curve exists. There have been a few others in recent years that brought the curve into question. Some showed a flat or wavy pattern to happiness in some countries. But this evidence offers strong corroboration for past findings. What’s more, it may help us sort out why people suffer a psychological low in midlife.

Some experts speculate it’s because people often reach the height of their careers at this time, which adds lots of stress. Also, if they have children, they’ve likely reach adolescence. Other reasons include a higher risk of serious setbacks like a divorce, a financial crisis, or a heart attack. Then there are personal questions that creep up at this time.

Realizing that half of one’s life is over causes him or her to ruminate over their life’s accomplishments. Naturally, many start comparing themselves to others, or wishing they had accomplished more. So what happens afterward, when life satisfaction begins picking up again? It could be that people begin focusing on the present rather than the past, and this allows them to really appreciate their life and the people in it.

To learn more about the science of happiness, click here:

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Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
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  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

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