Menus Subscribe Search
Sad orangutan

(Sad orangutan photo by airdone/Shuttersock)

Even Great Apes Get the Midlife Blues

• November 19, 2012 • 12:00 PM

(Sad orangutan photo by airdone/Shuttersock)

A new study finds chimpanzees and orangutans in captivity appear to be the least happy in middle age.

We’ve all been there. The trees we enjoyed climbing as kids no longer beckon quite so beguilingly. The fruits and nuts that were such delicious treats have largely lost their appeal. If we’re honest with ourselves, we are forced to admit: We’re in something of a mid-life crisis.

Yes, getting older can feel oppressive to an orangutan.

We can now add the middle-age blues to the list of experiences we mistakenly thought were exclusive to humans. In a paper just published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, an international research team reports the well-being of great apes apparently follows the same curved pattern familiar to homo sapiens, reaching its low point in midlife—that’s around age 30 for these creatures—and then rebounding as they move into late adulthood.

“We hoped to understand a famous scientific puzzle: why does human happiness follow an approximate U-shape through life?” said University of Warwick economist Andrew Oswald, one of the paper’s five authors. “We ended up showing that it cannot be because of mortgages, marital breakup, mobile phones, or any of the other paraphernalia of modern life. Apes also have a pronounced midlife low, and they have none of these.”

The researchers, from three continents, looked at 508 great apes: 155 chimpanzees from Japanese zoos, research centers and a sanctuary; 181 chimpanzees housed in U.S. and Australian zoos; and 172 orangutans housed in zoos in the U.S., Canada, Australia and Singapore. Caretakers who knew the animals well (usually for at least two years), including zookeepers and researchers, assessed their well-being using four measurements.

They rated whether the great ape was generally in a positive or negative mood; how much pleasure he or she seemed to derive from social situations; and how successful he or she was in achieving goals. Finally, the caretakers were asked “to indicate how happy they would be if they were the subject for a week.”

The patterns that emerged were pretty much identical for the three samples. The youngest great apes scored the highest in terms of overall well-being. Those in middle-age had the lowest scores, while the older animals were, on average, reasonably content.

“Our results imply that human well-being’s curved shape is not uniquely human, and that, while it may be partly explained by aspects of human life and society, its origins may lie partly in the biology we share with closely related great apes,” concludes the research team, which was led by University of Edinburgh psychologist Alexander Weiss.

The researchers speculate that, like humans, “the least happy apes” could have higher rates of mortality, which may account for the upward happiness curve for those who survive into later life. “A second possibility is that the U-shape arises in humans, chimpanzees and orangutans via similar age-related changes in brain structures,” they write.

“Finally, older adults in all three species may rely on behavioral mechanisms to regulate their emotions,” the researchers add. “For example, they may seek out situations and group members that elicit more positive emotions, or shift to goals that are more attainable in older age.”

Yeah, to hell with those youngsters romping around at the top of that tree. I’m literally going with the low-hanging fruit, and I plan to enjoy it.

It’s worth reiterating that these were not observations of great apes in the wild. It’s possible that the animals’ midlife depressions reflected the conditions of their captivity.

It’s also worth considering that their caretakers may have been, at least in part, projecting their own feelings onto the animals. Whether a chimpanzee achieves his or her goals is a rather subjective analysis.

Nevertheless, this apparent commonality is intriguing and may shed light on the biological underpinnings of our own emotional trajectories. What’s more, pharmaceutical companies will be enticed by the notion of a new market for their products.

Surely we won’t have to wait long before the introduction of primate Prozac.

Tom Jacobs
Staff writer Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for The Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Ventura County Star.

More From Tom Jacobs

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

August 27 • 12:00 PM

Love Can Make You Stronger

A new study links oxytocin, the hormone most commonly associated with social bonding, and the one that your body produces during an orgasm, with muscle regeneration.


August 27 • 11:05 AM

Education, Interrupted

When it comes to educational access, young Syrian refugees are becoming a “lost generation.”


August 27 • 9:47 AM

No, Smartphone-Loss Anxiety Disorder Isn’t Real

But people are anxious about losing their phones, even if they don’t do much to protect them.


August 27 • 8:00 AM

A Skeptic Meets a Psychic: When You Can See Into the Future, How Do You Handle Uncertainty?

For all the crystal balls and beaded doorways, some psychics provide a useful, non-paranormal service. The best ones—they give good advice.


August 27 • 6:00 AM

Speaking Eyebrow: Your Face Is Saying More Than You Think

Our involuntary gestures take on different “accents” depending on our cultural background.


August 27 • 4:00 AM

The Politics of Anti-NIMBYism and Addressing Housing Affordability

Respected expert economists like Paul Krugman and Edward Glaeser are confusing readers with their poor grasp of demography.


August 26 • 4:00 PM

Marching in Sync May Increase Aggression

Another danger of militarizing the police: Marching in lock step doesn’t just intimidate opponents. It impacts the mindset of the marchers.


August 26 • 3:03 PM

The Best Reporting on the Federal Push to Militarize Local Police With Riot Gear, Armored Vehicles, and Assault Rifles

A few facts you might have missed about the flow of military equipment and tactics to local law enforcement.


August 26 • 2:00 PM

How the Other 23 Percent Live

Almost one-fourth of all children in the United States are now living in poverty, an increase of three million kids since 2005.


August 26 • 12:00 PM

Why Sports Need Randomness

Noah Davis talks to David Sally, one of the authors of The Numbers Game: Why Everything You Know About Soccer Is Wrong, about how uncertainty affects and enhances the games we watch.


August 26 • 10:00 AM

Honor: The Cause of—and Solution to—All of Society’s Problems

Recent research on honor culture, associated with the American South and characterized by the need to retaliate against any perceived improper conduct, goes way beyond conventional situations involving disputes and aggression.



August 26 • 8:00 AM

The Transformative Effects of Bearing Witness

How witnessing inmate executions affects those who watch, and how having an audience present can also affect capital punishment process and policy.



August 26 • 7:15 AM

Being a Couch Potato: Not So Bad After All?

For those who feel guilty about watching TV, a new study provides redemption.


August 26 • 6:00 AM

Redesigning Birth Control in the Developing World

How single-use injectable contraceptives could change family planning in Africa.


August 26 • 4:15 AM

How Gay Men Feel About Aging

Coming to terms with growing old can be difficult in the gay community. But middle-aged men are inventing new strategies to cope.


August 25 • 4:00 PM

What to Look for In Dueling Autopsies of Michael Brown

The postmortem by Michael Baden is only the beginning as teams of specialists study the body of an 18-year-old African American killed by police in Ferguson, Missouri.


August 25 • 2:00 PM

Thoughts That Can’t Be Thought and Ideas That Can’t Be Formed: The Promise of Smart Drugs

Are we asking the right questions about smart drugs? Marek Kohn looks at what they can do for us—and what they can’t.


August 25 • 12:00 PM

Does Randomness Actually Exist?

Our human minds are incapable of truly answering that question.


August 25 • 10:31 AM

Cesareans Are Still Best for Feet-First Babies

A new study confirms that surgery is the safest way to deliver a breech fetus.


August 25 • 10:00 AM

What Can Hurricanes Teach Us About Socioeconomic Mobility?

Hurricane Katrina wrought havoc on New Orleans but, nine years later, is there a silver lining to be found?


August 25 • 8:00 AM

How Low Voter Turnout Helps Public Employees

To a surprising degree, as voter turnout goes down, public employee compensation goes up.


August 25 • 6:00 AM

Beyoncé Isn’t an Anti-Feminist Terrorist

A new book called Staging the Blues shows she’s embracing a tradition of multi-dimensional stardom, rather than one racist trope.


August 25 • 4:00 AM

A Tale of Two Abortion Wars

While pro-life activists fight to rescue IVF embryos from the freezer, pregnant women in their third trimester with catastrophic fetal anomalies have nowhere to turn.


Follow us


Subscribe Now

Education, Interrupted

When it comes to educational access, young Syrian refugees are becoming a “lost generation.”

No, Smartphone-Loss Anxiety Disorder Isn’t Real

But people are anxious about losing their phones, even if they don’t do much to protect them.

Being a Couch Potato: Not So Bad After All?

For those who feel guilty about watching TV, a new study provides redemption.

How Gay Men Feel About Aging

Coming to terms with growing old can be difficult in the gay community. But middle-aged men are inventing new strategies to cope.

Cesareans Are Still Best for Feet-First Babies

A new study confirms that surgery is the safest way to deliver a breech fetus.

The Big One

One in two full-time American fast-food workers' families are enrolled in public assistance programs, at a cost of $7 billion per year. July/August 2014 fast-food-big-one

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.