I'm turning 38 this week, and I can't say I'm thrilled about it. Like lots of folks, I tend to associate getting older with more gray hair and less coolness. I'm still far from the worst effects of aging, I admit, but I can spot them looming on the horizon. Birthdays have officially become a bummer.

Which may be why a recent study on the peak age for self-esteem caught my eye. I can't eat junk food with impunity any more or name anyone on the Top 40 radio station (though I still sing along), but according to a recent trip down a research rabbit hole, in many areas of life the best is probably yet to come.

Happy news about aging, courtesy of science

The research review that kicked off my quest for happy findings crunched data from hundreds of studies involving more than 150,000 people around the world and revealed a clear pattern when it comes to age and self-esteem. Feelings of self-worth "increased consistently (with a brief plateau in early adolescence) until the highest point at 60, where it stayed for the next decade, declining slightly in a person's 70s and 80s," reports the Cut.  

I might struggle to stay up past 11 p.m. these days, but at least I'm probably growing more comfortable in my own skin, then. With that happy news under my belt, I wondered what other cheerful results on aging science might offer. A bit of Googling quickly uncovered lots of research-backed reasons not to dread the passing of another year.

Not only is your self-esteem likely to rise over time, I discovered, but so is your happiness--at least in the slightly longer term. Data shows that in affluent countries happiness climbs steadily in young adulthood, only to dip in middle age.

Exactly why is still under discussion, but experts think the decline may be due to the strains of our peak caregiving and earning years. As Princeton economist Angus Deaton explained to the BBC, working yourself to unhappiness in these years often makes economic sense. "This is the period at which wage rates typically peak and is the best time to work and earn the most, even at the expense of present well-being, so as to have increased wealth and well-being later in life," he noted.

But while the midlife happiness crunch isn't super cheerful news, what's on the other side of it definitely is. Around 55, happiness levels tend to rise dramatically. 

Career success peaks later than you probably think

All of which is comforting, but what if you're an ambitious type who's more interested in professional success than blissing out? With all the startup wunderkinds and "40 Under 40" type lists in the media, it's easy to think that if you haven't made your mark on the world by middle age you're doomed to retire a mediocrity.

Baby-faced founders may make for great copy, but science shows they are the exception not the rule. Experience increases your chances of breakthrough success. Even in the youth-obsessed tech sector, careful analysis shows that the average age of successful startup founders is 47--yes, 47!

How about creative success? Don't great thinkers and artists burn brightest in their youths and flame out by middle age? If you're thinking of rock stars, maybe, but if you're aiming for basically any other type of greatness, the ability to not look ridiculous in leather pants is not a requirement.

One analysis of Nobel winners found that almost all the work for which their prizes were awarded was done after age 30. In many fields most was done after 40. Another study by the National Bureau of Economic Research claimed the peak age for genius is actually 35 overall, and significantly later in many fields, such as medicine.

Putting the likes of Jimi Hendrix and Kurt Cobain aside, even artistic greatness is frequently achieved only later in life. "Over 40 percent of both Robert Frost's and William Carlos Williams's best poems were written after the poets turned 50. Paul Cézanne's highest-priced paintings were made the year he died," Quartz's Olga Khazan points out.

Happy birthday to us all

It's not hard to pull out the common thread uniting all of these findings. Worshipping youth sells magazines and lipstick (supply is never up to demand, after all), but growing older has its quieter pleasures. Science shows that as the birthday candles on your cake increase, likely so too will your professional skill, personal confidence, and happiness.

Suddenly, maybe that birthday doesn't seem like such a bummer after all.

Published on: Sep 6, 2018