Study: Hairless, Middle-Aged Apes Still Middle-Aged Apes

For indispensable reporting on the coronavirus crisis and more, subscribe to Mother Jones' newsletters.

Why is happiness U-shaped? In countries around the world, people tend to get less happy up through about age 50 or so, and then rebound and get happier as they age. The Los Angeles Times provides us with the usual explanation:

By midlife, youth’s hot-blooded drive to mastery has driven off. Responsibilities abound. Decades of striving — to raise a family, to establish oneself in the community, to climb the professional ziggurat — have shown us the mountaintop and, with it, the limits of our reach and usefulness. A recognition of our mortality settles in. In the years after midlife, the theory goes, humans shoulder fewer burdens for the care of others. Their time horizons are shorter, prompting them to focus on people and activities that give pleasure and meaning to their lives. They regret less.

That’s a very convincing narrative, and we humans love narratives, don’t we? But guess what? It turns out that great apes, who feel none of these things, also experience U-shaped happiness:

When the composite well-being score for each ape was plotted according to his or her age, the result was the same distinctive U-shaped curve seen universally in humans. Around the ages of 28 and 35 — roughly the midpoint of the chimpanzees’ and orangutans’ expected life spans — moods sagged, animals became less socially engaged and they were less likely to persist in attaining the things they desired.

….For social scientists who saw shifts in happiness in strictly human terms, the findings were a forceful reminder that people have not evolved as far as we may think beyond the great apes, said Stacey Wood, a neuropsychologist at Scripps College in Claremont who wasn’t involved in the study.

….”It pushes more toward the possibility that this is biological,” added Arthur Stone, a professor of psychiatry at Stony Brook University in New York who was not involved with the study. Whether it’s hormones, brain structure, neurochemicals or some other factor that causes the middle-aged psyche to power down will require further research, Stone said. But from now on, he said, social explanations alone will not suffice.

So free will takes another hit. But then, I would say that, wouldn’t I?

Thank you!

We didn't know what to expect when we told you we needed to raise $400,000 before our fiscal year closed on June 30, and we're thrilled to report that our incredible community of readers contributed some $415,000 to help us keep charging as hard as we can during this crazy year.

You just sent an incredible message: that quality journalism doesn't have to answer to advertisers, billionaires, or hedge funds; that newsrooms can eke out an existence thanks primarily to the generosity of its readers. That's so powerful. Especially during what's been called a "media extinction event" when those looking to make a profit from the news pull back, the Mother Jones community steps in.

The months and years ahead won't be easy. Far from it. But there's no one we'd rather face the big challenges with than you, our committed and passionate readers, and our team of fearless reporters who show up every day.

Thank you!

We didn't know what to expect when we told you we needed to raise $400,000 before our fiscal year closed on June 30, and we're thrilled to report that our incredible community of readers contributed some $415,000 to help us keep charging as hard as we can during this crazy year.

You just sent an incredible message: that quality journalism doesn't have to answer to advertisers, billionaires, or hedge funds; that newsrooms can eke out an existence thanks primarily to the generosity of its readers. That's so powerful. Especially during what's been called a "media extinction event" when those looking to make a profit from the news pull back, the Mother Jones community steps in.

The months and years ahead won't be easy. Far from it. But there's no one we'd rather face the big challenges with than you, our committed and passionate readers, and our team of fearless reporters who show up every day.

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our newsletters

Subscribe and we'll send Mother Jones straight to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate

We have a new comment system! We are now using Coral, from Vox Media, for comments on all new articles. We'd love your feedback.