January 06, 2011

The happiness curve and alumni engagement

In the airport with my family over the holidays, I ran into a newsstand to pick up some things for our flight. There on the rack, the cover of The Economist caught my eye: “The joy of growing old (or why life begins at 46).” Being 46 at the moment, of course I bought it.

I thought the article might feature tips relevant to us mid-lifers, like how to prevent your knees from hurting when you hike, or how to remember what you walked into the kitchen for. What I found was something a little bigger-picture, something surprisingly related to my work with colleges and universities.

The not-particularly-happy news about happiness, according to the studies cited in the article, is that, in cultures around the world, people tend to start out happy and get increasingly less so, until they hit a collective rock bottom at age 46. Ouch.

The good news is that, as people continue to age, they report feeling happier and happier until their mid-80s, when (on average) they’re happier than they’ve ever been.

As I stared at the U-shaped chart, pondering all the ways I might feel happier in the future, I realized that I’ve seen this same graph before in our research with alumni.

Alumni tend to stay involved with their school for the first few years after graduation. But then engagement drops, bottoming out with alums in their 40s. It then begins to rise, with greater engagement and positive feelings as they age into retirement.

Common sense and our own research suggest that alums in their 40s are the most time-starved cohort, with jobs, kids, houses, and 401Ks taking up time and energy. So they have less time to devote to life’s optional commitments, like alumni events and class reunions. The Economist article made me wonder how happiness factors into the equation. If you don’t feel particularly good about your life, are you less likely to want to connect with your school and fellow alums? ...

I found myself remembering a woman I met years ago, who once told me that she had quit her job at a prestigious consulting firm just before her Harvard Business School reunion. I asked her why and she replied without irony, “Because I’d rather say I’m a full-time mom than admit I wasn’t on the partner track.”

That may have been a flippant remark, but it makes a sad kind of sense. When we’re not feeling good about life, we often turn inward. The prospect of celebrating our connection to our past—including our alma mater and classmates—isn’t particularly appealing. And that’s not just about attending events; writing a check to the annual fund also depends on that sense of celebration. So engagement and participation fall.

There’s some irony here, though, because it’s possible that being more engaged could actually increase happiness, at least somewhat. Haven’t the social psychologists demonstrated that social connectedness is one of the key determinants of happiness? Wouldn’t reconnecting to a happier, or at least more carefree and social, time in their lives bring a smile to alums in their 40s?

Now that I’m back in the office I plan to craft some new questions to add to our alumni surveys, to try to measure happiness or overall outlook on life so we can see if that influences engagement with the school. Who knows? Maybe we’ll also find ways that alumni programs can help make even us 46 year olds a little happier.

Jonathan — January 06, 2011

I think you bring up a good point, though the U-shaped happiness curve doesn't really seem to be very real (see e.g. Age and happiness: The pattern isn't as clear as you might think).

Eileen Bevis — January 06, 2011

What you call "turning inward," The Economist seems to label the "death of ambition"! They suggest that this stage leads eventually to the "birth of acceptance," which reminds me of that poem which starts "When I am an old woman I shall wear purple / With a red hat which doesn't go..."

As someone who's younger than 46, I won't comment on what exact changes happen in mid-life and after, but there do definitely seem to be shifts in priorities and foci over the entire life course. It doesn't surprise me that those shifts influence both happiness and alumni engagement. The bigger questions are: (1) do these shifts happen across groups of people in predictable ways (Jonathan's link suggests happiness is rather squirrelly, in this regard) and (2) if they are somewhat predictable, (a) what are they? and (b) what can alumni offices do about them? Looking forward to seeing where Cheryl's new research questions lead!

@Jonathan - Great link. I ran across some additional commentary that suggested the U.S. is different than other countries with regard to the U-shape of the happiness curve, and Gelman's criticism is based heavily on the GSS -- a survey of Americans. I wonder what that means for Cheryl's hypothesis that there is some correlation between happiness and alumni engagement -- possibly that alumni engagement is even more U-shaped in other countries?

Bill Hayward — January 06, 2011

If age does not bring one to the promised land of happiness, perhaps money will, but not in the way we tend to think it will. See the following summary of a study on happiness conducted by a Harvard Business School professor and colleagues at the University of British Columbia:


I recall hearing a bit about similar research on NPR a few months ago and found it heart-warming. If giving does lead us to greater happiness, and I like to think it does (nice when research paints such a positive image of the world), then maybe Cheryl's alumni research on the topic has additional legs.

And, what is the intersection of age and giving and happiness? Is it possible that with age and maturation comes the understanding that giving brings happiness? Thus, those who "see the light" to happiness achieve it through increased giving (not just financial, but giving in other ways as well). But, perhaps not everyone comes to that conclusion, or not with equal vigor, thus individual differences and noise in the relationship between happiness and age.

If giving does increase happiness, a greater understanding and awareness of this relationship would bode well for charitable giving and alumni giving. In the meantime, maybe I should return that call from my alma mater on my voice mail after all!

Cheryl Slover-Linett — January 06, 2011

Thanks all for the interesting additional studies. If the HBS study holds true for alums, I'd bet there's a strong correlation between giving, happiness and age. More things to research!

Rachelle Brooks — January 13, 2011

The curve measuring self-esteem over the lifespan looks incredibly similar. All the things mentioned above about helping oneself to feel "happier" would also increase one's self-esteem--is that the underlying concept we're really talking about when we say "happy"?

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