Unhappy people die younger

Disappointment is inevitable, but it is also healthy

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There are also critics, especially among psychologists and economists. Some researchers believe that the U is only created because unhappy people die earlier. Some scientists argue that the U-curve is only really pronounced in affluent countries. And last but not least, there are critics who do not believe that feelings can be measured at all.

Andrew Oswald has no doubts about his curves. He doesn't ask himself whether the U exists, but rather: why? Does it make sense, or is it just a freak of nature? "Newton also said that he noticed that the stars orbit without knowing why. At some point there was a theory." There are several for the U-curve.

One of the most prominent explanations comes from Hannes Schwandt. The German teaches economics at Northwestern University in Chicago. Schwandt is less careful than Oswald. What already led to anger, says Schwandt: "For example when I told a newspaper that people aged 23 and 69 are the most satisfied." Colleagues got excited about this exact information. Schwandt laughs. He wouldn't do it today, not even claim that every life is a U. But: "Statistically, the early twenties are great, the low is between mid-forties and mid-fifties, the second high phase begins between late sixties and early seventies. Only at the very end does it get bitter."

Schwandt turned to the topic "because satisfaction is more important than the gross national product". After all, the satisfaction of the population is one of the most important goals of economic growth. Schwandt rummaged through datasets, landed at the Socio-Economic Panel, the most important representative survey in Germany, which has been carried out in 15,000 German households since 1984. Anyone who is there once is asked again and again, including about current satisfaction - and expected satisfaction. "A great variable with which you can check how expectation relates to reality."

Expectations are considered rational among economists: false expectations cannot exist in the long term because people learn new things. Schwandt also believed in this theory until he saw his own results: the expected satisfaction was constantly different from that achieved - the young were less satisfied than they had expected in previous surveys, the old, however, more satisfied than they had hoped. In the middle of life of the respondents, the pattern of their misjudgment reversed.

But what was the reason? Schwandt found that disappointment accumulates in mid-life and that optimism steadily decreases over the course of life. So, of all people, the satisfied old people were the least optimistic. And Schwandt came across an experiment by neuropsychologists from Hamburg who had tested how people react to disappointment. To do this, they had test subjects uncover boxes under which either gold or a devil figure was hidden. The more common gold, the higher the profit. But if a devil appeared, all was lost. The participants could get out at any time and collect the profit, as with Who Wants To Be A Millionaire ?. After the game, they showed those who had stopped earlier how much they could still have won. The reactions were measured by means of a brain scan. And they were enormous - but only with the boys. The brains of the ancients showed no movement.

"A biologically sensible mechanism," says Schwandt. Anyone who is young has to go into life with a willingness to take risks and high expectations. "This excessive optimism drives us forward. We all believe that we will have a great job and a good marriage." Such expectations would often be disappointed in the course of life. "But at a young age you think: it will be. In the middle of life you understand that it will no longer be." People adjusted their expectations more and more to the possibilities, regretted less - and were also happy about small successes. Seen in this way, disappointment is inevitable, but also healthy.

The first half of life can hardly be better than with Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard. The sun is shining on Tübingen. In her garden, under a weeping willow, the branches of which hang lazily into the pond, the biologist sits and talks about her research. How important it is to her and how it was almost taken from her - by one's own success. She once used fruit flies to study how genes control development. She evaluated thousands of mutations, compared changes from one generation of flies to the next. Hard work, but also: "A clever choice of the research object. Completely new. My greatest act." Nüsslein-Volhard laughs. For this act she received the Nobel Prize in 1995. At the age of 53.

It was the culmination of a science-led life. The scientist also had to accept loneliness for this; only the name Nüsslein remained of a marriage. "For me it was research that I got absorbed in. Only because I lived alone all my life was I able to do what I did." Be a top researcher, be a role model. She has overcome all male resistance. Around 1973, when her doctoral supervisor put the name of a colleague at the top of their joint doctorate because he "needs a career as a family man". Or in 1985, when she became the Max Planck Director, one of two women under 200 men - with just a third of the usual budget. Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard remained undeterred. Until the big success came.

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"The Nobel Prize was a huge turning point. So much fell on me that I couldn't think anymore," she says. A turning point in the late middle of life, just when she realized that things are no longer the way they once were. "Until I was 50, I was in the laboratory myself, I knew what the employees were doing. Then the tension decreased." Competitors pushed into the field, ten, twenty years younger. She hired more people. Nevertheless, the quality decreased. "And it wasn't original anymore either." For that she should have done research or at least had time to think about the research. Like in old times. Instead of time, she now had responsibility: committees, appointments, applications, assessments. Nüsslein-Volhard sighs. "I became a manager." And as a cookbook author and advisor to the federal government. Besides everything, she was no longer just a researcher.