Daily Factoid: Explaining the 'Happiness Gap'

Regular visitors to this site will know that I routinely excoriate ad agencies for creating ads that portray mature consumers as a sad bunch of losers. We’re portrayed at best as clinging to fading youth and at worst as doddering from one drug dose to the next.

For at least a decade, I’ve been genuinely baffled by such portrayals, which fly in the face of my own direct experience and that of my friends.

There’s an obvious ‘Happiness Gap’ between the way mature consumers are portrayed in ads, and the way we actually feel. I blamed that gap on the mindless ageism of the ad industry but I recently had an ‘aha’ moment when I realized that it’s not ad creatives’ fault. They can’t be blamed for their misconception.

Now, I blame this U-shaped curve.

This graph is adapted from "A Snapshot of the Age Distribution of Psychological Well-Being in the United States" by Arthur A. Stone et al. For the complete study -- one of many that confirms the existence of the famous U-shaped curve for happiness -- go here.

This graph is adapted from "A Snapshot of the Age Distribution of Psychological Well-Being in the United States" by Arthur A. Stone et al. For the complete study -- one of many that confirms the existence of the famous U-shaped curve for happiness -- go here.

Across all cultures and socio-economic groups, research has shown that people’s happiness and enjoyment of life typically decreases from early adulthood until middle age. Then, sometime in people’s late 40s or early 50s, their happiness begins to increase. Their sense of well being (WB, in the graph) continues to increase until the last few years of life.

Considering our current life expectancies, that means North Americans experience three decades of progressively increasing happiness, after they enter middle age.

Why is this relevant to ad business?

The more I think about the U-shaped curve, the more I realize that it supports my argument that young creatives can’t possibly be expected to really understand mature consumers.

It’s not just that they lack direct experience of being mature consumers. It’s worse than that. Because from the time you get your first job in the ad business, you’re on the happiness downslide. Less and less happy; less and less satisfied; more and more worried.

When young creatives extrapolate their own experiences, it's bound to color the impression they have of older consumers. And it helps to explain why advertising portrays older consumers as sad sacks hanging on only to see the grandkids graduate from middle school.

Nothing could be further from the truth. But by the time those young creatives realize it, they will have aged out of the ad business!

People in their 60s – I know, I am one – routinely say that they’re happier now than at any previous age. Or, at least, happier than they’ve been since they were children. Consumers in their 60s and 70s don’t want to recapture lost youth. Time and time again they tell surveys they’re happy right where they are.

You know who wants to roll their age back? People in their 30s and 40s, who miss being in their 20s. IE, people with hands on creative jobs in the ad business.

Ironically, right around the time ad creative would finally realize that older consumers are, if anything, happier than most younger consumers – around the time they’d start crafting ads based on a real appreciation of mature consumers’ emotional lives – creatives get laid off, fired, or otherwise are forced out of the business. They cede their jobs to a new generation of young creatives who, again, dread getting older for a very good reason: in their own experience, getting older = becoming more and more stressed and unhappy.