Skip to main content


Front. Psychol., 28 April 2022
Sec. Psychology of Aging
Volume 13 - 2022 |

The U-Curve of Happiness Revisited: Correlations and Differences in Life Satisfaction Over the Span of Life—An Empirical Evaluation Based on Data From 1,597 Individuals Aged 12–94 in Germany

  • Department of Medicine, Faculty of Health, Institute for Integrative Health Care and Health Promotion, Witten/Herdecke University, Witten, Germany

Background: Subjective wellbeing (SWB) is a research topic of growing interest for different disciplines. Based on a cross-sectional survey with 1,597 participants aged 12–94, this study investigated life satisfaction and momentary happiness, two important dimensions of SWB. We examined their relationship, shape, and correlates across individuals of different ages and interpreted the results in the light of a neurobiological model of motivation systems.

Methods: Statistical analyses were performed using multiple linear regression. First, we examined how life satisfaction is associated with selected socio-demographic variables across four age groups. Second, we analyzed the association between life satisfaction and age, and lastly, we examined the extent to which happiness is a prerequisite for life satisfaction in each age group.

Results: Our analyses show that life satisfaction correlates negatively with poor health and financial worries, and positively with partnership, grandchildren, and religiosity. However, the inverse relationship with poor health is stronger in younger than in older individuals, while the inverse association with financial worries is strongest in late midlife (50–69 years). We identified gender-specific differences concerning the relationship between life satisfaction and age, with males displaying a U-shape trend with its lowest point between the ages of 30 and 49, whereas females’ life satisfaction increases stepwise with age. Although momentary happiness correlates strongly with life satisfaction, this relationship decreases with age.

Conclusion: The results suggest that individuals adjust or even grow beyond their perceptions of a “good life” over time. Neurobiological processes of adaptation and personal growth could play an important role in these developments.


This study contributes to the growing body of literature on subjective well-being research by assessing potential predictors of life satisfaction in and across four age groups, differentiating between momentary happiness and life satisfaction, and analyzing the relationship between these two concepts of SWB at different ages.

Understanding the determinants of a “good life” has been a subject of interest for more than 2,000 years. Aristotle, for example, formulated his philosophy of happiness in 330 BC, defining it as the highest goal of human existence and referring to it as eudaimonia—a reward for the life lived (Waterman, 1990). Since then, scientific research from various disciplines including psychology, behavioral sciences, economics, and neuroscience has contributed to a better understanding of subjective wellbeing (SWB), a “general term referring to the various types of subjective evaluations of one’s life, including both cognitive evaluations and affective feelings” (Diener et al., 2018, p. 3) and its many dimensions. From a large set of analyzed variables, strong relationships (Waldinger, 2015), sufficient income (Diener and Oishi, 2000), religiosity (Tay et al., 2014), and good self-reported health (Veenhoven, 2008; Sabatini, 2014) have consistently been found to be associated with SWB. For extensive literature reviews on these aspects, we refer to, e.g., Diener et al. (1999, 2018) and Eid and Larsen (2008).

A significant amount of attention has been invested in attempting to determine whether individuals can influence their SWB levels through intentional activities. While some authors (e.g., Lyubomirsky et al., 2005) estimate intentional activities to account for up to 40 percent of the variance in happiness, others estimate our potential to consciously influence SWB levels as being far lower (e.g., Brown and Rohrer, 2020). Authors such as Steel et al. (2008, 2019) or Pavot and Diener (2011) examined the interplay between personality and SWB and found that the Big Five personality traits—openness to experience, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism—explain much of the observed variation in SWB (about one-third in a review of Steel et al., 2008). As the personality itself is thought to contain a malleable component (Damian et al., 2019), its association with SWB could potentially change in individuals and this throughout the span of life. Despite many studies concerning the potential sources of SWB, the exact interplay between genetics, external life conditions, and influenceable activities is still a matter of debate.

Concerning the relationship between SWB and age, evidence from the past two decades and data from more than 140 countries predominantly indicates that SWB levels are U-shaped over the life span (Blanchflower and Oswald, 2004, 2008; Frijters and Beatton, 2012). Critics argue that the U-shape only exists under certain socio-economic conditions (Deaton, 2008), that it results from omitted cohort effects (Easterlin and Schaeffer, 1999), and that the results could be skewed by a “survival of the happy” (Segerstrom et al., 2016). Kassenboehmer and Haisken-DeNew (2012) critically remarked that panel studies (e.g., those based on the German Socio-Economic Panel) entail the risk of biases due to a lack of attention paid to heterogeneity, the type of questioning, and increasing interview experience (Kassenboehmer and Haisken-DeNew, 2012). However, several longitudinal studies (e.g., van Landeghem, 2012; Cheng et al., 2017), data from countries with very different incomes and social systems (Blanchflower, 2021), and studies that controlled for the biases mentioned above (Mroczek and Spiro, 2005; Easterlin, 2006) seem to confirm the hypothesis that the level of SWB is U-shaped over the individual span of life.

Although many studies have attempted to explain the determinants of SWB, many of them face substantial shortcomings. For example, they do not consider age effects, ignore dynamic processes of adaptation and personal growth, or conflate different definitions of SWB. In their literature review, Heidl et al. (2012) concluded that there are difficulties in establishing a uniform definition of happiness and that “due to difficult conceptual delimitations and ambiguities, some researchers use the meaning of the words (joy, happiness, contentment, well-being, satisfaction, bliss, or fun) in the same way.”

The present study distinguishes between two dimensions of SWB, namely, “life satisfaction” and “momentary happiness.” In this context, we understand life satisfaction as “people’s explicit and conscious evaluations of their lives,” and momentary happiness as “a person’s well-being derived from pleasure, and lowered by pain,” which is sometimes also referred to as hedonic wellbeing (Diener et al., 2018).


Inspired by the neurobiological model of motivation systems (Esch, 2017), we investigated correlates of life satisfaction across individuals of different ages and analyzed to what extent momentary happiness is a prerequisite for life satisfaction. In particular, we explored the following three research questions:

Research Question 1 (RQ1): Does the relationship between selected socio-demographic variables and life satisfaction remain stable or change with age?

Hypothesis 1: The relationship between socio-demographic variables and life satisfaction is moderated by age.

Research Question 2 (RQ2): How does life satisfaction relate to age?

Hypothesis 2: The relationship between life satisfaction and age is U-shaped.

Research Question 3 (RQ3): Is the life satisfaction of older people less dependent on momentary happiness than the life satisfaction of younger people?

Hypothesis 3: The dependence between life satisfaction and momentary happiness decreases with increasing age.

The neurobiological model of motivational systems is a theory according to which life satisfaction and happiness are viewed as a result of dynamic biological processes of change, maturation, adaptation, and personal growth throughout life. According to this model, life satisfaction and momentary happiness are closely related, including enzymatic processing of relevant neurotransmitters, aligning with the biological course of life, but they do not necessarily presuppose each other. A detailed description of the model is provided in the interpretation section. Although we were guided by the neurobiological model in our hypothesis generation, the study results can also be interpreted independently of the model.

With this study, we aim to contribute to SWB and socio-psychological research in two different ways. Firstly, we aspire to facilitate a better understanding of SWB by analyzing potential predictors of life satisfaction in individuals of different ages and by evaluating the relationship between life satisfaction and momentary happiness. We believe that it is relevant to analyze cognitive reflections on life satisfaction in general (a trait component of SWB) and happiness just in this very moment (a state component of SWB) in one study, to analyze them separately and investigate their relationship in individuals of different ages. It is this distinction that enables us to explore how important momentary happiness (pleasure, peak moments, and positive moods) is for our life satisfaction in different ages.

Secondly, we strive to expand the discussion on the determinants of life satisfaction by integrating insights from modern neurobiological research into the science of SWB. To our knowledge, this is the first empirical study that uses a theoretical neurobiological model to explain age-related differences in life satisfaction and its predictors.

This article forms part of a larger study that aims to examine patterns and motives of a good and meaningful life in and across different age groups. The second study arm, which explores sources of meaning using a qualitative and quantitative approach, was recently published under the title “What matters most in life? A German cohort study on the sources of meaning and their neurobiological foundations in four age groups” (Karwetzky et al., 2021).

Materials and Methods


Our study uses data from a cross-sectional survey that was conducted from September 2017 to January 2018 for the purpose of this study.

Since the neurobiological model of motivation systems assumes that our perceptions of life satisfaction and happiness are influenced by biological adaptive processes throughout the whole span of life, our target population included people with a wide age range from 10 to 99 years. The study consisted only of individuals living in Germany. People with cognitive impairment (e.g., Alzheimer’s disease) were excluded from the study.

We primarily collected data online (n = 1,038) although participants could also complete the survey on paper by means of printed questionnaires (n = 559). Participants were recruited nationwide via social media, health magazines, radio, and TV broadcasts. Underage individuals were targeted in two schools in northern Germany (Wilhelmshaven), where teachers asked their students to fill out the printed questionnaires. Older adults were targeted in and outside four medical practices that were located across the country in four cities of different sizes (in addition to web-recruiting strategies). We provided comprehensive information on the study objectives and data protection to all participants and obtained the parents’ informed consent in cases where the study participants were underage (n = 40). The study obtained ethical approval from the ethics committee of the Witten/Herdecke University.

Survey Instrument

The questionnaire consisted of two quantitative measures followed by the open question “What matters most to you in life?” which was assessed in the study’s second part (Karwetzky et al., 2021). The first quantitative item was “How happy are you at this moment?” followed by the question “How satisfied are you with your life in general?” The rationale for this formulation and order was to avoid a reflection on life or a longer period of time with regard to momentary happiness. Likewise, the question about general life satisfaction should encourage such reflections and not refer to the moment of response. The scale of both items ranged from zero (very unhappy/dissatisfied) to 100 (very happy/satisfied). We also collected numerous socio-demographic variables, namely, age, gender, occupational status, subjective health status (good/moderate/poor), partnership, religiosity/faith, financial status (regular financial worries/occasional financial worries/no financial worries), children, and grandchildren. Existing studies and literature reviews have reported relevant relationships between these variables and SWB, which is why they were included in the survey (e.g., Diener et al., 1999, 2018). However, the queried variables are only a selection of relevant explanatory variables, and significant relationships may exist between SWB and other variables not included in this study.

To validate our survey instrument, we pre-tested it with 15 individuals in 2017.

After completing the data collection, the first step of our analysis was to review the data for missing values and inconsistent content. The check did not reveal any irregularities.

Statistical Analyses

All statistical analyses were performed using the program SPSS Statistics, Version 28. To investigate age-related differences in the variables associated with life satisfaction, the study population was divided into four age groups that reflect typical phases of life, such as youth and early adulthood, building a family and a professional career, late midlife, and retirement, and late life (see also, Karwetzky et al., 2021):

Age group 1: up to 29 years

Age group 2: 30 to 49 years

Age group 3: 50 to 69 years

Age group 4: 70 years or older

Methodologically, the three research questions were examined using the following statistical procedures:

RQ1: First, we assessed the relationships between life satisfaction and the queried socio-demographic variables by means of multiple linear regression analysis. To explore whether the observed associations are moderated by age, interactions of socio-demographic variables with the four age groups were added to the model. To keep the model concise, interactions were only included for variables with significant main effects in the first model.

RQ 2: To analyze the relationship between life satisfaction and age, we added age squared to the first regression model from RQ 1 as the inclusion of a quadratic term into an otherwise standard regression is a common statistical procedure to identify U-shaped relationships (Lind and Mehlum, 2010).

RQ 3: To examine the relationship between life satisfaction and happiness in and across four age groups, we calculated a regression using life satisfaction as the dependent and happiness, socio-demographic variables, and the interactions between happiness and the four age groups as independent variables.

Except for age, all independent variables had a categorical measurement level and were therefore dummy-coded. In alignment with authors such as Ng (1997) and Ferrer-i-Carbonell (2002), we assumed the life satisfaction scales’ cardinality. Figure 1 summarizes the statistical procedures that were selected to address the research questions.


Figure 1. Overview of the research approach.

Intercorrelations among the independent variables were calculated to rule out excessive multicollinearity, as shown in the results in Section “Correlations Between the Variables.”

The reported regression coefficients are unstandardized on a scale from 0 to 100. To assess the effect size of age squared (RQ 2), we also reported standardized coefficients.

Descriptive Statistics

Table 1 shows the distribution of our study population and the socio-demographic variables.


Table 1. Socio-demographic variables of the study population.

Although the sample largely represents the demographic distribution in Germany, the participants in Age group 2 were slightly over-represented and the participants in Age group 4 were slightly under-represented (Figure 2; German Federal Statistical Office, 2018). Overall, more females (1,004) than males (593) participated in the survey.


Figure 2. Comparison of the age distribution of the study participants with that of the overall German population.

Table 2 shows the descriptive statistics for the three metric variables life satisfaction, momentary happiness, and age.


Table 2. Statistics for the three metric variables life satisfaction, momentary happiness, and age.

The mean value of life satisfaction was 75.33, which was 7 points higher than the measure for momentary happiness. Simultaneously, the standard deviations were high at 21.11 and 22.31 points. The values collected were comparable to the results of other representative surveys, such as those of the German Socio-Economic Panel which found an average life satisfaction of approximately 7.5 on a scale of 0–10 for 2015 (SOEP, 2018).


Correlations Between the Variables

Table 3 shows the Pearson correlation coefficients between all independent and dependent variables. Even though some substantial correlations existed, there was no excessive collinearity, which would negatively influence the following regression models’ interpretation. The highest correlations were found between life satisfaction and happiness (r = 0.66, p < 0.001), age and grandchildren (r = 0.58, p < 0.001), and age and children (r = 0.57, p < 0.001).


Table 3. Correlations between dependent and independent variables.

Relationship Between Life Satisfaction and Specific Aspects of Life (RQ 1)

The regression from Table 4 investigates the relationship between life satisfaction and the queried socio-demographic variables. Significant associations were found for the variables poor subjective health (B = −23.638, 95% CI: −27.199 to −20.077), regular financial worries (B = −22.815, 95% CI: −26.021 to −19.609), partnership (B = 5.168, 95% CI: 3.166–7.169), grandchildren (B = 4.173, 95% CI: 1.184–7.162), religiosity (B = 2.070, 95% CI: 0.247–3.893), and age (B = 0.102, 95% CI: 0.030–0.175). The variables female, children, and working/studying had no additional effect on life satisfaction. More detailed results including the exact standard errors and p-values are provided in Tables 4 and 5.


Table 4. Regression of life satisfaction by socio-demographic variables.


Table 5. Regression of satisfaction by demographic variables and interactions of age groups with demographic variables.

Following this first analysis, we investigated whether the identified coefficients differ in relation to age. Table 5 shows the results of a regression that used life satisfaction as the dependent variable and the socio-demographic variables and their interactions with age as independent variables. For interpretation, the interaction’s coefficient must be added to the coefficients of the respective reference group and a non-significant coefficient means that no difference exists between an age group and the reference Age group 1 concerning this specific variable.

The analysis revealed a positive coefficient for the interaction of moderate health status with Age group 3 (B = 6.906, 95% CI: 1.190–12.622) and Age group 4 (B = 13.417, 95% CI: 5.869–20.965), thereby indicating that the negative association between moderate health and satisfaction is significantly smaller in older than in younger individuals. Furthermore, we found a positive coefficient for the interaction between Age group 4 and poor health (B = 14.644, 95% CI: 3.042–26.245), suggesting that even subjectively severe health problems are correlated less strongly with life satisfaction in older than in younger people. Concerning regular financial worries, we found a negative coefficient for the interaction with Age group 3 (B = −9.298, 95% CI: −18.023 to 0.573), which indicates that the negative relationship between financial worries and life satisfaction is significantly more pronounced in this age group.

Relationship Between Life Satisfaction and Age (RQ 2)

According to the results presented in Table 4, life satisfaction is positively associated with age at B = 0.102 (95% CI: 0.030–0.175), thereby suggesting that life satisfaction increases with age. To analyze this relationship in more detail, we added the age squared values to the first regression model. In this supplemented model, the coefficient of age squared was B = 0.006 (95% CI: 0.003–0.009), indicating the presence of a U-shaped relationship. Supplementary Table 1 shows the complete results of this analysis.

Figure 3 illustrates the mean satisfaction values across Age groups 1–4 for the entire study population, including the values for both males and females. While men showed a pronounced U-shaped relationship for life satisfaction, with the lowest point in Age group 2, a two-step upward trend could be observed in the female study participants.


Figure 3. Average levels of life satisfaction in different age groups.

Relationship Between Life Satisfaction and Momentary Happiness (RQ 3)

Following the analysis of life satisfaction and age, we investigated the relationship between life satisfaction and momentary happiness, moderated by age. This fourth regression model aimed to determine how satisfaction and happiness relate to each other and to analyze if their relationship differs in participants of different age groups.

The regression in Table 6 used satisfaction as the dependent variable and happiness, the demographic variables, and the interactions of happiness with Age groups 1–4 as independent variables. The table shows a strong positive association between life satisfaction an happiness in Age group 1 (B = 0.578, 95% CI: 0.509–0.646). In contrast, the interactions of happiness and Age groups 3 and 4 had negative coefficients (B = −0.093, respectively B = −0.104), indicating that the association between happiness and life satisfaction is significantly weaker in these age groups than in Age group 1. Supplementary Figure 1 illustrates the relationship between life satisfaction and happiness in the four age groups, showing that for any given level of momentary happiness, older individuals reach a higher level of life satisfaction than younger individuals.


Table 6. Linear regression model for the dependent variable life satisfaction and happiness, socio-demographic variables, and interactions of happiness with different age groups as independent variables.

Figure 4 illustrates the average life satisfaction and happiness values across the four age groups. These results clearly show how the difference between both concepts of SWB increases with the participants’ age.


Figure 4. Average levels of life satisfaction and momentary happiness in different age groups.


Interpretation of the Main Results

This study’s primary objective was to explore whether selected socio-demographic aspects are associated with life satisfaction and if so, to analyze whether such associations are stable across individuals of different age groups. Among all age groups, good health, the absence of financial worries, and religiosity showed robust correlations with life satisfaction. In addition, we found significant associations with partnership and grandchildren, which highlights the importance of relationships for our wellbeing. Interestingly, however, having children was not associated with life satisfaction, which is a finding that is consistent with previous research claiming that the positive and negative effects of having children on subjective wellbeing balance each other out (Hansen, 2012; Deaton and Stone, 2014; Ugur, 2020). However, this aspect is still a matter of debate since generativity, which requires having generations to follow, has been shown to be positively correlated with SWB (Navarro-Prados et al., 2018; Moieni et al., 2020). From the data, we did not obtain significant results concerning the relationship between occupational status and life satisfaction. Overall, the socio-demographic variables included in this study explain about 29 percent of the observed variance in life satisfaction, which is substantial. In comparison with the study’s qualitative part (Karwetzky et al., 2021), both analyses highlight the importance of health, partnership, and generativity for our SWB.

Taking age into account in the analysis, we obtained some notable results. Having a partnership and being religious/faithful were associated with increased life satisfaction regardless of age, whereas regular financial worries were most negatively associated with life satisfaction in Age group 3 (50–69 years). Furthermore, we found that the negative association between life satisfaction and moderate or even poor health status was significantly weaker among older than among younger individuals. One possible explanation is that older people might consider having some health problems as being an inevitable part of the aging process, and thus either perceive them as being less impairing or simply learn to deal with them as time passes.

Concerning the second objective of this study, namely, the analysis of the relationship between life satisfaction and age, we identified a U-shaped trend with the lowest point found in Age group 2 (30–49 years) for male participants. For females, we observed two stepwise increases in life satisfaction; the first increase in Age group 2 (30–49 years) and a second in Age group 4 (70 years or older).

Regarding the third study objective, we observed that life satisfaction and happiness are closely related, with a Beta of 0.578 in Age group 1. In Age group 3 (Beta = 0.484) and Age group 4 (Beta = 0.473), their relationship was significantly weaker, which suggests that momentary happiness is less of a prerequisite for life satisfaction in older than in younger people.

Overall, the results of this study show that satisfaction levels and correlations between life satisfaction, momentary happiness, and socio-demographic variables vary with age, confirming hypotheses H1 and H3. H2 could be confirmed for male participants.

Life Satisfaction and Happiness in the Context of the Neurobiological Model of Motivation Systems

As indicated in the introductory sections of this paper, the neurobiological model of motivation systems (Esch, 2017; Michaelsen and Esch, 2021) could help to explain the patterns observed in our analysis. According to this model, life satisfaction and happiness result from lifelong maturing processes driven by constant endogenous rewards and motivation cycles. Neurophysiologic processes assist our maturation by chemically and biologically rewarding the “right” practices and associated experiences, i.e., trajectories of a “good” or “fulfilling” life.

The model distinguishes three levels of motivation (A–C), which are united by the aim of advancing personal and biological growth throughout the various phases of life. After starting life with extensive freedom, adaptation potential, and a brain that remains inadequately prepared for the concrete challenges of life, we need to learn and adapt our inner structure to the outer world (neuroplasticity). During this first phase, we are biologically flexible. We want to evolve, explore the unknown, and constantly absorb the various impressions that life has to offer (type A motivation: the “wanting system”). With progressive adaptation and maturation, our stress physiology is activated, and we strive to defend what has been gained (and has been cast into our structure) rather than conquer new territories. We long for security and protection and want to avoid harm and anxiety (type B motivation: the “threat avoidance system”). If we succeed in adapting to our environment and in maturing internally, the development of deep and persistent satisfaction is possible (type C motivation: the “non-wanting” or “quiescence system”).

Supplementary Figure 2 illustrates the model and specifies the neuronal structures and transmitters involved in each phase. Regarding the neuroendocrinology of motivation and behavior, we would like to refer to an insightful review by McCall and Singer (2012) and the synopsis of involved neurotransmitters presented in the textbook The Neurobiology of Happiness by Esch (2017).

As part of the neurobiological model, Esch advocates making a distinction between momentary happiness and life satisfaction. While happiness is characterized by intense, pleasurable, and euphoric but fleeting moments, satisfaction is more profound, persistent, and subtle, and is characterized, among others, by feelings of acceptance, affiliation, arrival, and quiescence (Esch, 2017). The model suggests that life satisfaction includes an affective and a cognitive component. Supported by the endogenous reward system, we feel life as a whole as being satisfying, contenting, and/or gratifying. This affective experience represents a primary neurobiological function. The cognitive evaluation or appraisal, however, takes place second, is associative, and facilitated by the secondary and associative brain areas. While the questionnaire of this study concentrated on the cognitive component of life satisfaction (“How satisfied are you with your life in general?”) other studies have successfully addressed the affective component. For example, the Heidelberg Centenarian Study was able to show that people can experience a positive vision of life even with substantial cognitive limitations (Jopp and Rott, 2006).

Supported by neurobiological adaptation processes, age and progressive maturation lead to greater differentiation between life satisfaction and momentary happiness, as shown by their decreasing relationship in Research Question 3. Specifically, the regression results had shown that the relationship between the two dimensions is significantly lower in Age groups 3 and 4 than in Age groups 1 and 2. According to the model, the stress experienced in phases A and B of life is physiologically a prerequisite for deep and prolonged satisfaction later in life, i.e., phase C.

The increase in life satisfaction observed in the second half of life may seem counterintuitive, as this period is often characterized by increasing physical complaints and the onset of chronic diseases. Consequently, social researchers and gerontologists have called this phenomenon a “satisfaction paradox” (e.g., Schilling, 2006; Ferring, 2015). The neurobiological model, however, explains why the increase observed might be less paradoxical than commonly assumed. As we get older, “our needs and desires are getting satisfied more cost-effectively and efficiently with the help of a brain that is becoming ever better adapted” to our social environment (Esch, 2017, p. 134).

Argyle (2001) has a different theory concerning this phenomenon and assumes that as life progresses we adapt and manage our expectations, accept life’s circumstances, and reduce the goal-achievement gap that causes unhappiness or dissatisfaction. However, at best, Argyle’s hypothesis only explains why a decline in life satisfaction may be prevented despite increasing physical limitations, whereas the neurobiological model, in contrast, could also explain the observed increase in satisfaction above baseline levels. As analyses based on the Socio-Economic Panel have shown, life satisfaction begins to decline again a few years before a death caused by prolonged illness (Gerstorf and Wagner, 2010). Before this stage, however, major or severe depression is less common among older than among younger individuals (Thomas et al., 2016; von Hirschhausen and Esch, 2018), whereas life satisfaction is commonly high.

Like some other authors (e.g., Frijters and Beatton, 2012; Blanchflower, 2021), we observed a decrease in life satisfaction from early adulthood until midlife for some, especially male study participants. According to the neurobiological model, early adulthood is a phase in which most people experience the seriousness and challenges of life (i.e., stress). At this stage of our lives, we need to assume responsibility for ourselves, our children, and sometimes also our parents. We usually work more and start feeling the burden of financial pressures. Consequently, the two stress axes originating in our brain activate the body’s stress physiology (“allostatic stress response”); we are alert and ready to fight the dangers and difficulties of life (Esch and Stefano, 2004; Stefano et al., 2005). Despite being biologically necessary, the consequences of an uncontrolled stress response, or simply too much stress, can be a halt or even decrease in life satisfaction until the brain adapts to the new situation, learns, and allows life satisfaction to increase again.


When interpreting the results, the limitations of this study should be considered, the first of which is the cross-sectional study design used. As we surveyed participants only once, we are unable to analyze developments in their individual emotional lives over time. Furthermore, a frequent criticism raised against the use of cross-sectional surveys is the risk of hidden cohort effects, as individuals of a particular generation might respond similarly due to shared beliefs and life experiences (Parry and Urwin, 2017). However, the robustness of our results appears to be supported by the findings of various longitudinal studies that have reported increasing or U-shaped life satisfaction values over age, even in different countries and cohorts, with persons who faced very different historical and cultural circumstances and developments (Blanchflower and Oswald, 2008; van Landeghem, 2012; Sutin et al., 2013; Clark and Oswald, 2016; Cheng et al., 2017). Our findings are further supported by Carstensen et al. (2011), who in their 10-year longitudinal survey found that aging goes hand-in-hand with a more balanced emotional life and an increase in life satisfaction. With regard to the findings of Kassenboehmer and Haisken-DeNew (2012), who showed life satisfaction to be more stable over the life span after controlling the GSOEP data for interviewer effects, we point out that such effects played no role in our study due to the data collection method that was utilized. Nevertheless, it would be desirable to corroborate the study results obtained with longitudinally collected data and thus explore changes over the life course rather than differences between individuals.

A second limitation concerns the possibility of a selection bias. Since the study design primarily solicited voluntary participation via the internet, little influence could be exerted on the composition of our study population. Although online surveys are a standard procedure in research, they risk excluding individuals who do not have an internet connection or feel less comfortable with online questionnaires. Despite the fact that we complemented our online recruiting strategy with printed questionnaires in public places, such as schools and medical practices, follow-up studies should try to overcome this limitation, for example, through a more stratified sample based on data from civil records. With regard to the place of residence, we can rule out the possibility that its size would have biased the regression results.

Finally, from the results, we could not determine whether the independent endogenous variables (e.g., health and religiosity) cause life satisfaction or are caused by it. Many studies and articles do not make clear distinctions between endogenous and exogenous variables and yet draw explicit causal inferences (e.g., “What causes life satisfaction?” and “What makes us happy?”). However, due to the complexity of causality in this context, we recommend more caution in drawing conclusions from these aspects at present.

Recommendations for Further Research

This study provides a starting point that enables future research to consider the changing relationship between life satisfaction, momentary happiness, physical health, and financial aspects with increasing age. One recommendation for future research is to explore why people go through the developmental steps and changes highlighted in this study at different rates. Why, for example, do some people seem to mature quickly during or after severe illnesses or other traumatic events (“posttraumatic growth”), while others struggle for years? Future research in this area can build on existing work on stress-driven or posttraumatic growth, such as that by Tedeschi and Calhoun (1996, 2004), Tomich and Helgeson (2004), and Carroll (2014).

Due to the large age range (12–94 years), the present study made a rather coarse distinction between four age groups. We therefore suggest that future studies look more closely at specific phases of life, for example, by distinguishing between adolescents and young adults or by examining older individuals in more detail.

Third, we suggest replicating this study design in other countries and cultures to account for regional differences and better understand them. In particular, we recommend empirically testing whether a weakening relationship between satisfaction and poor subjective health also exists in countries with less developed social security systems.


This article forms the second part of a study on the patterns and motives life satisfaction and happiness, two important dimensions of SWB. Based on data from 1,597 study participants, we assessed whether selected aspects of life are associated with life satisfaction and whether such associations are stable across four different age groups. We found that good subjective health, partnership, religiosity, and the absence of financial worries were strongly related to life satisfaction. However, the negative association between compromised health and life satisfaction was significantly weaker in older individuals, while financial worries correlated most strongly with (low) life satisfaction between 50 and 69 years of age. Furthermore, we observed higher satisfaction levels and a weakening relationship between life satisfaction and momentary happiness among older individuals. Interpreting the results in the light of the neurobiological model of motivation systems, we argue that endogenous reward and motivation could play an important role in the age-related differences observed.

The second article of this study (Karwetzky et al., 2021) identified sources of meaning in and across the same four age groups and confirmed that perceptions of a good and meaningful life differ significantly depending on age.

Data Availability Statement

The datasets presented in this article are not readily available because the Witten/Herdecke University’s Ethics Committee did not allow the data to be made publicly available. Requests to access the datasets should be directed to TE (

Ethics Statement

The studies involving human participants were reviewed and approved by Witten/Herdecke University’s Ethics Committee. Written informed consent to participate in this study was provided by the participants’ legal guardian/next of kin.

Author Contributions

CK: conceptualization, investigation, formal analysis, and writing. MM and LW: conceptualization, methodology, review, and editing. TE: conceptualization, project administration, supervision, review, and editing. All authors contributed to the article and approved the submitted version.

Conflict of Interest

The authors declare that the research was conducted in the absence of any commercial or financial relationships that could be construed as a potential conflict of interest.

Publisher’s Note

All claims expressed in this article are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily represent those of their affiliated organizations, or those of the publisher, the editors and the reviewers. Any product that may be evaluated in this article, or claim that may be made by its manufacturer, is not guaranteed or endorsed by the publisher.


We would like to thank the Witten/Herdecke University for making this study possible. Our special thanks to almost 1,600 people who gave their valuable time to complete our questionnaire and promote the study.

Supplementary Material

The Supplementary Material for this article can be found online at:


Argyle, M. (2001). The Psychology of Happiness. 2nd Edn. London: Routledge.

Google Scholar

Blanchflower, D. G. (2021). Is happiness U-shaped everywhere? Age and subjective well-being in 145 countries. J. Popul. Econ. 34, 575–624. doi: 10.1007/s00148-020-00797-z

PubMed Abstract | CrossRef Full Text | Google Scholar

Blanchflower, D. G., and Oswald, A. J. (2004). Well-being over time in Britain and the USA. J. Public Econ. 88, 1359–1386. doi: 10.1016/S0047-2727(02)00168-8

CrossRef Full Text | Google Scholar

Blanchflower, D. G., and Oswald, A. J. (2008). Is well-being U-shaped over the life cycle? Soc. Sci. Med. 66, 1733–1749. doi: 10.1016/j.socscimed.2008.01.030

PubMed Abstract | CrossRef Full Text | Google Scholar

Brown, N. J. L., and Rohrer, J. M. (2020). Easy as (happiness) pie? A critical evaluation of a popular model of the determinants of well-being. J. Happiness Stud. 21, 1285–1301. doi: 10.1007/s10902-019-00128-4

CrossRef Full Text | Google Scholar

Carroll, M. (2014). Personal growth after traumatic experiences. Nurs. Times 110, 23–25.

Google Scholar

Carstensen, L. L., Turan, B., Scheibe, S., Ram, N., Ersner-Hershfield, H., Samanez-Larkin, G. R., et al. (2011). Emotional experience improves with age: evidence based on over 10 years of experience sampling. Psychol. Aging 26, 21–33. doi: 10.1037/a0021285

PubMed Abstract | CrossRef Full Text | Google Scholar

Cheng, T. C., Powdthavee, N., and Oswald, A. J. (2017). Longitudinal evidence for a midlife nadir in human well-being: results from four data sets. Econ. J. 127, 126–142. doi: 10.1111/ecoj.12256

PubMed Abstract | CrossRef Full Text | Google Scholar

Clark, A., and Oswald, A. J. (2016). The Curved Relationship between Subjective Well-Being and Age (PSE Working Papers 2006–29). Paris: Ecole normale superieure. Available at: (Accessed March 28, 2022).

Google Scholar

Damian, R. I., Spengler, M., Sutu, A., and Roberts, B. W. (2019). Sixteen going on sixty-six: a longitudinal study of personality stability and change across 50 years. J. Pers. Soc. Psychol. 117, 674–695. doi: 10.1037/pspp0000210

PubMed Abstract | CrossRef Full Text | Google Scholar

Deaton, A. (2008). Income, health, & well-being around the world: evidence from the Gallup world poll. J. Econ. Perspect. 22, 53–72. doi: 10.1257/jep.22.2.53

PubMed Abstract | CrossRef Full Text | Google Scholar

Deaton, A., and Stone, A. A. (2014). Evaluative and hedonic wellbeing among those with and without children at home. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U. S. A. 111, 1328–1333. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1311600111

PubMed Abstract | CrossRef Full Text | Google Scholar

Diener, E., and Oishi, S. (2000). “Money and happiness: income and subjective well-being across nations,” in Culture and Subjective Well-Being. eds. E. Diener and E. M. Suh (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press), 185–218.

Google Scholar

Diener, E., Oishi, S., and Tay, L. (2018). Advances in subjective well-being research. Nat. Hum. Behav. 2, 253–260. doi: 10.1038/s41562-018-0307-6

CrossRef Full Text | Google Scholar

Diener, E., Suh, E. M., Lucas, R. E., and Smith, H. L. (1999). Subjective well-being: three decades of progress. Psychol. Bull. 125, 276–302. doi: 10.1037/0033-2909.125.2.276

CrossRef Full Text | Google Scholar

Easterlin, R. A. (2006). Life cycle happiness and its sources. J. Econ. Psychol. 27, 463–482. doi: 10.1016/j.joep.2006.05.002

CrossRef Full Text | Google Scholar

Easterlin, R. A., and Schaeffer, C. M. (1999). “Income and subjective wellbeing over the life cycle,” in The Self and Society in Aging Processes. eds. C. D. Ryff and V. W. Marshall (New York, NY: Springer), 279–301.

Google Scholar

Eid, M., and Larsen, R. J. (2008). The Science of Subjective Well-Being. New York, NY: The Guilford Press.

Google Scholar

Esch, T. (2017). Die Neurobiologie des Glücks: Wie die Positive Psychologie die Medizin verändert. 3rd Edn. Stuttgart: Georg Thieme Verlag.

Google Scholar

Esch, T., and Stefano, G. B. (2004). The neurobiology of pleasure, reward processes, addiction and their health implications. Neuro Endocrinol. Lett. 25, 235–251.

Google Scholar

Ferrer-i-Carbonell, A. (2002). Subjective Questions to Measure Welfare and Well-Being: A Survey (Discussion Paper: 02–020/3). Amsterdam/Rotterdam: Tinbergen Institute. Available at: (Accessed March 28, 2022).

Google Scholar

Ferring, D. (2015). „Zufriedenheitsparadox“ und „Unzufriedenheitsdilemma“ – Die Einstellung zum Altern. Forum für Politik, Gesellschaft und Kultur in Luxemburg, 41–42. doi: 10.13140/RG.2.1.4451.0166

CrossRef Full Text | Google Scholar

Frijters, P., and Beatton, T. (2012). The mystery of the U-shaped relationship between happiness and age. J. Econ. Behav. Organ. 82, 525–542. doi: 10.1016/j.jebo.2012.03.008

CrossRef Full Text | Google Scholar

German Federal Statistical Office (2018). Distribution of the German population among different age groups. Available at: (Accessed March 28, 2022).

Google Scholar

Gerstorf, D., and Wagner, G. G. (2010). Lebenszufriedenheit am Ende des Lebens in Ost- und Westdeutschland: Die DDR wirft einen langen Schatten (SOEP papers on Multidisciplinary Panel Data Research No. 320). Berlin: Deutsches Institut für Wirtschaftsforschung (DIW). Available at: (Accessed March 28, 2022).

Google Scholar

Hansen, T. (2012). Parenthood and happiness: a review of folk theories versus empirical evidence. Soc. Indic. Res. 108, 29–64. doi: 10.1007/s11205-011-9865-y

CrossRef Full Text | Google Scholar

Heidl, C. M., Landenberger, M., and Jahn, P. (2012). Lebenszufriedenheit in Westdeutschland: Eine Querschnittsanalyse mit den Daten des Sozio-oekonomischen Panels (SOEP papers on Multidisciplinary Panel Data Research No. 521) Berlin: Deutsches Institut für Wirtschaftsforschung (DIW). Available at: (Accessed March 28, 2022).

Google Scholar

Jopp, D., and Rott, C. (2006). Adaptation in very old age: exploring the role of resources, beliefs, and attitudes for centenarians' happiness. Psychol. Aging 21, 266–280. doi: 10.1037/0882-7974.21.2.266

PubMed Abstract | CrossRef Full Text | Google Scholar

Karwetzky, C., Werdecker, L., and Esch, T. (2021). What matters Most in life? A German cohort study on the sources of meaning and their neurobiological foundations in four age groups. Front. Psychol. 12:777751. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2021.777751

PubMed Abstract | CrossRef Full Text | Google Scholar

Kassenboehmer, S. C., and Haisken-DeNew, J. P. (2012). Heresy or enlightenment? The well-being age U-shape effect is flat. Econ. Lett. 117, 235–238. doi: 10.1016/j.econlet.2012.05.013

CrossRef Full Text | Google Scholar

Lind, J. T., and Mehlum, H. (2010). With or Without U? The appropriate test for a U-shaped relationship. Oxf. Bull. Econ. Stat. 72, 109–118. doi: 10.1111/j.1468-0084.2009.00569.x

CrossRef Full Text | Google Scholar

Lyubomirsky, S., Sheldon, K. M., and Schkade, D. (2005). Pursuing happiness: the architecture of sustainable change. Rev. Gen. Psychol. 9, 111–131. doi: 10.1037/1089-2680.9.2.111

CrossRef Full Text | Google Scholar

McCall, C., and Singer, T. (2012). The animal and human neuroendocrinology of social cognition, motivation and behavior. Nat. Neurosci. 15, 681–688. doi: 10.1038/nn.3084

PubMed Abstract | CrossRef Full Text | Google Scholar

Michaelsen, M. M., and Esch, T. (2021). Motivation and reward mechanisms in health behavior change processes. Brain Res. 1757:147309. doi: 10.1016/j.brainres.2021.147309

PubMed Abstract | CrossRef Full Text | Google Scholar

Moieni, M., Irwin, M. R., Seeman, T. E., Robles, T. F., Lieberman, M. D., Breen, E. C., et al. (2020). Feeling needed: effects of a randomized generativity intervention on well-being and inflammation in older women. Brain Behav. Immun. 84, 97–105. doi: 10.1016/j.bbi.2019.11.014

PubMed Abstract | CrossRef Full Text | Google Scholar

Mroczek, D. K., and Spiro, A. (2005). Change in life satisfaction during adulthood: findings from the veterans affairs normative aging study. J. Pers. Soc. Psychol. 88, 189–202. doi: 10.1037/0022-3514.88.1.189

PubMed Abstract | CrossRef Full Text | Google Scholar

Navarro-Prados, A. B., Serrate-Gonzalez, S., Muñoz-Rodríguez, J.-M., and Díaz-Orueta, U. (2018). Relationship between personality traits, generativity, & life satisfaction in individuals attending university programs for seniors. Int. J. Aging Hum. Dev. 87, 184–200. doi: 10.1177/0091415017740678

PubMed Abstract | CrossRef Full Text | Google Scholar

Ng, Y.-K. (1997). A case for happiness, cardinalism and interpersonal comparability. Econ. J. 107, 1848–1858. doi: 10.1111/j.1468-0297.1997.tb00087.x

CrossRef Full Text | Google Scholar

Parry, E., and Urwin, P. (2017). The evidence base for generational differences: where do we go from here? Work Aging Retire. 3, 140–148. doi: 10.1093/workar/waw037

CrossRef Full Text | Google Scholar

Pavot, W., and Diener, E. (2011). “Personality and happiness,” in The Wiley-Blackwell Handbook of Individual Differences. eds. T. Chamorro-Premuzic, S. von Stumm, and A. Furnham (Hoboken, NY: Wiley-Blackwell), 699–717.

Google Scholar

Sabatini, F. (2014). The relationship between happiness and health: evidence from Italy. Soc. Sci. Med. 114, 178–187. doi: 10.1016/j.socscimed.2014.05.024

PubMed Abstract | CrossRef Full Text | Google Scholar

Schilling, O. (2006). Development of life satisfaction in old age: another view on the “paradox”. Soc. Indic. Res. 75, 241–271. doi: 10.1007/s11205-004-5297-2

CrossRef Full Text | Google Scholar

Segerstrom, S. C., Combs, H. L., Winning, A., Boehm, J. K., and Kubzansky, L. D. (2016). The happy survivor? Effects of differential mortality on life satisfaction in older age. Psychol. Aging 31, 340–345. doi: 10.1037/pag0000091

PubMed Abstract | CrossRef Full Text | Google Scholar

SOEP (2018). Average life satisfaction in Germany. Available at: (Accessed March 28, 2022).

Google Scholar

Steel, P., Schmidt, J., Bosco, F., and Uggerslev, K. (2019). The effects of personality on job satisfaction and life satisfaction: a meta-analytic investigation accounting for bandwidth–fidelity and commensurability. Hum. Relat. 72, 217–247. doi: 10.1177/0018726718771465

CrossRef Full Text | Google Scholar

Steel, P., Schmidt, J., and Shultz, J. (2008). Refining the relationship between personality and subjective well-being. Psychol. Bull. 134, 138–161. doi: 10.1037/0033-2909.134.1.138

PubMed Abstract | CrossRef Full Text | Google Scholar

Stefano, G. B., Benson, H., Fricchione, G. L., and Esch, T. (eds.) (2005). The Stress Response: Always Good and When It Is Bad. New York, NY: Medical Science International.

PubMed Abstract | Google Scholar

Sutin, A. R., Terracciano, A., Milaneschi, Y., An, Y., Ferrucci, L., and Zonderman, A. B. (2013). The effect of birth cohort on well-being: the legacy of economic hard times. Psychol. Sci. 24, 379–385. doi: 10.1177/0956797612459658

PubMed Abstract | CrossRef Full Text | Google Scholar

Tay, L., Li, M., Myers, D., and Diener, E. (2014). “Religiosity and subjective well-being: an international perspective,” in Cross-Cultural Advancements in Positive Psychology. Religion and Spirituality Across Cultures. ed. C. Kim-Prieto (Amsterdam: Springer), 163–175.

Google Scholar

Tedeschi, R. G., and Calhoun, L. G. (1996). The posttraumatic growth inventory: measuring the positive legacy of trauma. J. Trauma. Stress. 9, 455–471. doi: 10.1002/jts.2490090305

PubMed Abstract | CrossRef Full Text | Google Scholar

Tedeschi, R. G., and Calhoun, L. G. (2004). Posttraumatic growth: conceptual foundations and empirical evidence. Psychol. Inq. 15, 1–18. doi: 10.1207/s15327965pli1501_01

CrossRef Full Text | Google Scholar

Thomas, M. L., Kaufmann, C. N., Palmer, B. W., Depp, C. A., Martin, A. S., Glorioso, D. K., et al. (2016). Paradoxical trend for improvement in mental health with aging: a community-based study of 1,546 adults aged 21–100 years. J. Clin. Psychiatry 77, e1019–e1025. doi: 10.4088/JCP.16m10671

PubMed Abstract | CrossRef Full Text | Google Scholar

Tomich, P. L., and Helgeson, V. S. (2004). Is finding something good in the bad always good? Benefit finding among women with breast cancer. Health Psychol. 23, 16–23. doi: 10.1037/0278-6133.23.1.16

PubMed Abstract | CrossRef Full Text | Google Scholar

Ugur, Z. B. (2020). Does having children bring life satisfaction in Europe? J. Happiness Stud. 21, 1385–1406. doi: 10.1007/s10902-019-00135-5

CrossRef Full Text | Google Scholar

van Landeghem, B. (2012). A test for the convexity of human well-being over the life cycle: longitudinal evidence from a 20-year panel. J. Econ. Behav. Organ. 81, 571–582. doi: 10.1016/j.jebo.2011.08.001

CrossRef Full Text | Google Scholar

Veenhoven, R. (2008). Healthy happiness: effects of happiness on physical health and the consequences for preventive health care. J. Happiness Stud. 9, 449–469. doi: 10.1007/s10902-006-9042-1

CrossRef Full Text | Google Scholar

von Hirschhausen, E., and Esch, T. (2018). Die bessere Hälfte: Worauf wir uns mitten im Leben freuen können. Hamburg: Rowohlt Taschenbuch Verlag.

Google Scholar

Waldinger, R. J. (2015). What makes a good life? Lessons from the longest study on happiness. Ted Talk. Available at: (Accessed March 28, 2022).

Google Scholar

Waterman, A. S. (1990). The relevance of Aristotle's conception of eudaimonia for the psychological study of happiness. Theo. Philos. Psychol. 10, 39–44. doi: 10.1037/h0091489

CrossRef Full Text | Google Scholar

Keywords: life satisfaction, momentary happiness, neurobiology, endogenous reward, U-shape, aging

Citation: Karwetzky C, Michaelsen MM, Werdecker L and Esch T (2022) The U-Curve of Happiness Revisited: Correlations and Differences in Life Satisfaction Over the Span of Life—An Empirical Evaluation Based on Data From 1,597 Individuals Aged 12–94 in Germany. Front. Psychol. 13:837638. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2022.837638

Received: 15 January 2022; Accepted: 21 March 2022;
Published: 28 April 2022.

Edited by:

Hui Zeng, Central South University, China

Reviewed by:

Jianfei Xie, Central South University, China
Jing Wang, Xi’an Jiaotong University, China

Copyright © 2022 Karwetzky, Michaelsen, Werdecker and Esch. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (CC BY). The use, distribution or reproduction in other forums is permitted, provided the original author(s) and the copyright owner(s) are credited and that the original publication in this journal is cited, in accordance with accepted academic practice. No use, distribution or reproduction is permitted which does not comply with these terms.

*Correspondence: Tobias Esch,