It’s hard to spot a moment of relief for our self-esteem.
Each generation seems to have an existential battle on their hands – whether it’s the angst of teens, the ‘quarter life crisis’, the panic of the 30th birthday, the mid-life crisis or the ‘loneliness epidemic’ commonly associated with old age.
But a study by the University of Bern in Switzerland has identified when adults are happiest in their own skin: at 60.
The researchers say their meta-analysis is the first to show that while self-esteem is a highly personal battle, it does appear to follow a general pattern in all people – a theory that has been gaining traction in the last couple of decades.
Self-esteem, they acknowledge, is ‘by no means an immutable characteristic of individuals’.
It fluctuates significantly in everyone, derailed or stabilized by all kinds of things, from interactions and relationships to achievements and losses, weight gain, weight loss, medical issues – to name a few.
Until the 1980s, psychologists generally agreed that adults don’t experience any significant changes in self-esteem.
However, in the last 40 years, that idea has been called into question.
It was already widely accepted that, over time, our sense of control – both physical and emotional – strengthened over time, peaked around 60, then weakened.
Psychologists who study the Big Five personality traits have found the same: our openness to experience, conscientiousness, extraversion, and agreeableness strengthen over time, then wane, as our neuroticism does the opposite.
While those things may sound obviously linked to self-esteem, studies confirming that have been few and far between.
In particular: studies started to show an arc-like pattern to self-esteem, but had not studied broad enough populations to pinpoint a general ‘peak’.
To map out the pattern of self-esteem, researchers analyzed data from almost 200 previously published research articles, which included 165,000 people aged four to 94.
They found that while we may feel moments of crisis in all the years leading up to 60, our self-esteem rarely suffers a catastrophic dip; it is generally always strengthening, though in some periods it remains steady or the increase is not as sharp.
From four to 11, there is a significant and steady increase.
In our 20s we see a sharper increase in self-esteem than in any other period of our lives as we get to grips with independence – a trend halted abruptly by the big 30.
That’s still not enough to deliver us to our peak, though: it takes another three decades of slow progress for our egos to gradually relax, and our sense of self-worth to build up strength, until we reach the heady heights of 60.
At 60, they found, most people are the happiest they have ever been, and remain so until 70, at which point our confidence begins to slide ever so slightly. At 90, we suffer the sharpest dip in self-esteem of our lives.
‘Midlife is, for many adults, a time of highly stable life circumstances in domains such as relationships and work,’ psychology professor Ulrich Orth, who co-authored the study, told TIME.
‘Moreover, during middle adulthood, most individuals further invest in the social roles they hold, which might promote their self-esteem.
‘For example, people take on managerial roles at work, maintain a satisfying relationship with their spouse or partner, and help their children to become responsible and independent adults.’