Life's ups and downs may be more or less predictable
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Using data from the Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia (HILDA) survey, the study tracked the life satisfaction of almost 27,000 Australians for up to 12 years as they navigated through seven transition stages – leaving the parental home; forming a relationship; having children; relationship separation; becoming ‘empty nesters’; retirement; and the death of a partner.
Senior Research Fellow, Professor David de Vaus said the study examined whether life satisfaction changes as people get older and whether there is any kind of predictable trajectory.
“We wanted to look at what happens to people’s outlook as they move from the hopes and aspirations of youth, through some of the harsher realities of adult life and the challenges of later life,” Professor de Vaus said.
“Overall, we found that there was a sharp decline in life satisfaction from the age of 15 to the early 20s, followed by a further gradual decline from the early 20s to the mid 30s.
“People experienced stable but lower satisfaction with life from the mid 30s to the early 50s, the period of lowest life satisfaction.
“From the early 50s life satisfaction begins to improve both steadily and substantially until the late 60s. From the late 60s to the early 80s, life satisfaction remains steady and high, near the highest of any time in life. From the early 80s, satisfaction begins to decline a little but remains higher than most earlier life stages.”
Researchers found that both men and women had overall life satisfaction ratings above 7 on a 0-10 scale, although this fluctuated throughout major life events:
Leaving the parental home
- Leaving home does not lead to any change in life satisfaction overall but it may help arrest a decline in life satisfaction, especially for women.
- On average, there was no change in life satisfaction from the year before leaving home to the year after for either men or women.
- Four years after leaving home, young women were more satisfied than men.
- Beginning to live with a partner was linked with a marked and then sustained increase in life satisfaction for both men and women.
- The year following partnering reflected a sharp increase in life satisfaction that was sustained over the next 6 years.
Birth of a child
- The arrival of a child is linked to a rise in life satisfaction prior to the birth and a decline in life satisfaction after the birth for both men and women.
- Following the birth the life satisfaction of women declined a little in the first year and then sharply in the second year. Among men there was little noticeable change in life satisfaction in the year immediately following the birth.
- In the fifth year after the birth, the decline in life satisfaction is reversed and shows a small improvement coinciding with children starting school.
- Relationship separation is linked with a sharp decline in life satisfaction among both men and women.
- The decline in life satisfaction begins well before separation for women but not for men, while the fall in life satisfaction right after separation was greater for men.
- Following separation, the life satisfaction of both men and women improved steadily for the next 6 years but only recovered to the level that was apparent about 2 years prior to the breakup.
- For both men and women the life satisfaction of those who eventually re-partnered, recovered to much higher levels than those who remained single.
- Any impact of seeing the last (or only) child leaving the family home is relatively modest, with only a small increase in life satisfaction in the years following the start of the empty nest stage.
- The gradual improvement was evident in most of the 6 years prior to the nest emptying, potentially reflecting declining parental responsibility and stresses prior to the final child departing.
- In the year immediately after retirement there is no change in life satisfaction for men and only a marginal boost for women.
- After the first year of leaving the workplace, life satisfaction for both men and women mostly improves.
- Life satisfaction hits a low point in the year immediately following the death of a partner but it begins declining sharply in the two or three years prior to the partner’s death.
- Following the low point in the first year after widowhood, life satisfaction recovers rapidly and sharply but not to the same level as 6 years prior to the partner’s death.
- Women recover more rapidly than men, but by 6 years after widowhood both men and women have the same level of life satisfaction.
Co-author of the study, AIFS Senior Research Fellow, Dr Lixia Qu said some of the results were surprising.
“Some of the big shifts in people’s lives weren’t necessarily the ones we’ve come to expect. Leaving the parental home, becoming an empty nester, or entering retirement appear not to affect people’s life satisfaction greatly,” Dr Qu said.
“However, the excitement of starting a new life with a partner and having a child did make people more satisfied with life, although in the case of having a child life satisfaction then declined for the first 5 years of the child’s life.
“Predictably, people’s life satisfaction also hit a low point immediately following relationship separation and becoming widowed but improved after these challenging events.
“Sometimes the impact of life transitions depends on what else is going on. For example, when people left their parental home to live with a partner, their life satisfaction was higher than for those who left home but remained single.
“Living with a partner was associated with higher levels of life satisfaction right throughout the life course, and after separation those who re-partnered fared better than those who remained single.”