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

July 30 • 4:00 PM

Still the World’s Top Military Spender

Although declining in real terms, the United States’ military budget remains substantial and a huge drain on our public resources.



July 30 • 2:04 PM

The Rise of the Nuisance Flood

Minor floods are afflicting parts of Maryland nearly 10 times more often than was the case in the 1960s.


July 30 • 2:00 PM

The (Mostly Awful) Things You Learn After Investigating Unpaid Internships for a Year

Though the intern economy remains opaque, dialogue about the role of interns in the labor force—and protections they deserve—is beginning to take shape.


July 30 • 12:00 PM

Why Coffee Shortages Won’t Change the Price of Your Frappuccino

You’re so loyal to Starbucks—and the company knows it—that your daily serving of caffeine is already marked up beyond the reach of any fluctuations in supply.



July 30 • 10:00 AM

Having Difficult Conversations With Your Children

Why it’s necessary, and how to do it.


July 30 • 8:00 AM

How to Make a Convincing Sci-Fi Movie on a Tight Budget

Coherence is a good movie, and its initial shoot cost about the same amount of money as a used Prius.


July 30 • 6:00 AM

Are You Really as Happy as You Say You Are?

Researchers find a universal positivity bias in the way we talk, tweet, and write.


July 30 • 4:00 AM

The Declining Wage Gap for Gay Men

New research finds gay men in America are rapidly catching up with straight married men in terms of wages.


July 30 • 2:00 AM

LeBron James Migration: Big Chef Seeking Small Pond

The King’s return to Cleveland is a symbol for the dramatic shift in domestic as well as international migration.


July 29 • 4:00 PM

Are Children Seeking Refuge Turning More Americans Against Undocumented Immigrants?

A look at Pew Research Center survey data collected in February and July of this year.


July 29 • 2:00 PM

Under Water: The EPA’s Ongoing Struggle to Combat Pollution

Frustration and inaction color efforts to enforce the Clean Water Act.


July 29 • 12:40 PM

America’s Streams Are Awash With Pesticides Banned in Europe

You may have never heard of clothianidin, but it’s probably in your local river.


July 29 • 12:00 PM

Mining Your Genetic Data for Profit: The Dark Side of Biobanking

One woman’s personal story raises deep questions about the stark limits of current controls in a nascent industry at the very edge of the frontier of humans and technology.


July 29 • 11:23 AM

Where Should You Go to College?


July 29 • 10:29 AM

How Textbooks Have Changed the Face of War

War is more personal, less glorious, and more hellish in modern textbooks than in the past. But there’s still room for improvement.


July 29 • 10:00 AM

The Monolingual American: Why Are Those Outside of the U.S. Encouraging It?

If you are an American trying to learn German in a large German town or city, you will mostly hear English in return, even when you give sprechen your best shot.


July 29 • 8:00 AM

The Elusive Link Between Casinos and Crime

With a study of the impact of Philadelphia’s SugarHouse Casino, a heated debate gets fresh ammunition.


July 29 • 6:00 AM

What Are the Benefits of Locking Yourself in a Tank and Floating in Room-Temperature Saltwater?

After three sessions in an isolation tank, the answer’s still not quite clear.


July 29 • 4:00 AM

Harry Potter and the Battle Against Bigotry

Kids who identify with the hero of J.K. Rowling’s popular fantasy novels hold more open-minded attitudes toward immigrants and gays.


July 29 • 2:00 AM

Geographic Scale and Talent Migration: Washington, D.C.’s New Silver Line

Around the country, suburbs are fighting with the urban core over jobs and employees.


July 28 • 4:00 PM

Border Fences Make Unequal Neighbors and Enforce Social Inequality

What would it look like if you combined Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza, demographically speaking? What about the United States and Guatemala?


July 28 • 2:00 PM

Are Patient Privacy Laws Being Misused to Protect Medical Centers?

A 1996 law known as HIPAA has been cited to scold a mom taking a picture of her son in a hospital, to keep information away from police investigating a possible rape at a nursing home, and to threaten VA whistleblowers.


July 28 • 12:00 PM

Does Internet Addiction Excuse the Death of an Infant?

In Love Child, documentary filmmaker Valerie Veatch explores how virtual worlds encourage us to erase the boundary between digital and real, no matter the consequences.


Follow us


Subscribe Now

The Rise of the Nuisance Flood

Minor floods are afflicting parts of Maryland nearly 10 times more often than was the case in the 1960s.

America’s Streams Are Awash With Pesticides Banned in Europe

You may have never heard of clothianidin, but it's probably in your local river.

How Textbooks Have Changed the Face of War

War is more personal, less glorious, and more hellish in modern textbooks than in the past. But there’s still room for improvement.

NASA Could Build Entire Spacecrafts in Space Using 3-D Printers

This year NASA will experiment with 3-D printing small objects in space. That could mark the beginning of a gravity-free manufacturing revolution.

The Most Popular Ways to Share Good and Bad Personal News

Researchers rank the popularity of all of the different methods we have for telling people about our lives, from Facebook to face-to-face.

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

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