Evidence for a midlife crisis in great apes consistent with the U-shape in human well-being.
Alexander Weiss, James E. King, Miho Inoue-Murayama, Tetsuro Matsuzawa, Andrew J. Oswald
Recently, economists and behavioral scientists have studied the pattern of human well-being over the lifespan. In dozens of countries, and for a large range of well-being measures, including happiness and mental health, well-being is high in youth, falls to a nadir in midlife, and rises again in old age. The reasons for this U-shape are still unclear. Present theories emphasize sociological and economic forces. In this study we show that a similar U-shape exists in 508 great apes (two samples of chimpanzees and one sample of orangutans) whose well-being was assessed by raters familiar with the individual apes. This U-shaped pattern or “midlife crisis” emerges with or without use of parametric methods. Our results imply that human well-being’s curved shape is not uniquely human and that, although it may be partly explained by aspects of human life and society, its origins may lie partly in the biology we share with great apes. These findings have implications across scientific and social-scientific disciplines, and may help to identify ways of enhancing human and ape well-being.
This research finds evidence of a ‘mid-life crisis’ in Great Apes.
Chimpanzees and orangutans follow the same U-shaped pattern of
well-being through life as humans, so both apes and human beings share
a ‘mid-life crisis’. This is the finding from a new study, published
in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA that
set out to test the theory that the pattern of human well-being over a
lifespan might have evolved in the common ancestors of humans and
great apes. The authors show that, as in humans, chimpanzee and
orang-utan well-being (or happiness) is high in youth, falls in middle
age, and rises again into old age. A multi-disciplinary, international
team of researchers, led by psychologist Dr Alex Weiss from the
University of Edinburgh, studied 508 great apes housed in zoos and
sanctuaries in the United States, Japan, Canada, Australia and
Singapore. The apes’ well-being was assessed by keepers, volunteers,
researchers and caretakers who knew the apes well. Their happiness was
scored with a series of measures adapted from human subjective
well-being measures. The study is the first of its kind and the
authors knew their work was likely to be unconventional. Dr Weiss
said: “Based on all of the other behavioural and developmental
similarities between humans, chimpanzees, and orang-utans, we
predicted that there would be similarities when looking at happiness
over the lifespan, too. However, one never knows how these things will
turn out, so it’s wonderful when they are consistent with findings
from so many other areas.”
The team included primatologists and psychologists from Japan and the United States. In the paper the team point out that their findings do not rule out the possibility that economic events or social and cultural forces contribute part of the reason for the well-being U shape in humans. However, they highlight the need to consider evolutionary or biological explanations. For example, individuals being satisfied at stages of their life where they have fewer resources to improve their lot may be less likely to encounter situations that could be harmful to them or their families.