Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


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

October 21 • 4:00 PM

Why the Number of Reported Sexual Offenses Is Skyrocketing at Occidental College

When you make it easier to report assault, people will come forward.


October 21 • 2:00 PM

Private Donors Are Supplying Spy Gear to Cops Across the Country Without Any Oversight

There’s little public scrutiny when private donors pay to give police controversial technology and weapons. Sometimes, companies are donors to the same foundations that purchase their products for police.


October 21 • 12:00 PM

How Clever Do You Think Your Dog Is?

Maybe as smart as a four-year-old child?


October 21 • 10:00 AM

Converting the Climate Change Non-Believers

When hard science isn’t enough, what can be done?



October 21 • 8:00 AM

Education Policy Is Stuck in the Manufacturing Age

Refining our policies and teaching social and emotional skills will help us to generate sustained prosperity.


October 21 • 7:13 AM

That Cigarette Would Make a Great Water Filter

Clean out the ashtray, add some aluminum oxide, and you’ve (almost) got yourself a low-cost way to remove arsenic from drinking water.


October 21 • 6:00 AM

Fruits and Vegetables Are About to Enter a Flavor Renaissance

Chefs are teaming up with plant breeders to revitalize bland produce with robust flavors and exotic beauty—qualities long neglected by industrial agriculture.


October 21 • 4:00 AM

She’s Cheating on Him, You Can Tell Just by Watching Them

New research suggests telltale signs of infidelity emerge even in a three- to five-minute video.


October 21 • 2:00 AM

Cheating Demographic Doom: Pittsburgh Exceptionalism and Japan’s Surprising Economic Resilience

Don’t judge a metro or a nation-state by its population numbers.


October 20 • 4:00 PM

The Bird Hat Craze That Sparked a Preservation Movement

How a fashion statement at the turn of the 19th century led to the creation of the first Audubon societies.


October 20 • 2:00 PM

The Risk of Getting Killed by the Police If You Are White, and If You Are Black

An analysis of killings by police shows outsize risk for young black males.


October 20 • 12:00 PM

Love and Hate in Israel and Palestine

Psychologists find that parties to a conflict think they’re motivated by love while their enemies are motivated by hate.


October 20 • 11:00 AM

My Dog Comes First: The Importance of Pets to Homeless Youth

Dogs and cats have both advantages and disadvantages for street-involved youth.


October 20 • 10:00 AM

Homophobia Is Not a Thing of the Past

Despite growing support for LGBT rights and recent decisions from the Supreme Court regarding the legality of same-sex marriage, the battle for acceptance has not yet been decided.


October 20 • 8:00 AM

Big Boobs Matter Most

Medical mnemonics are often scandalous and sexist, but they help the student to both remember important facts and cope with challenging new experiences.


October 20 • 6:00 AM

When Disease Becomes Political: The Likely Electoral Fallout From Ebola

Will voters blame President Obama—and punish Democrats in the upcoming mid-term elections—for a climate of fear?


October 20 • 4:00 AM

Coming Soon: The Anatomy of Ignorance


October 17 • 4:00 PM

What All Military Families Need to Know About High-Cost Lenders

Lessons from over a year on the beat.


October 17 • 2:00 PM

The Majority of Languages Do Not Have Gendered Pronouns

A world without “he.” Or “she.”


October 17 • 11:01 AM

How to Water a Farm in Sandy Ground

Physicists investigate how to grow food more efficiently in fine-grained soil.


October 17 • 10:00 AM

Can Science Fiction Spur Science Innovation?

Without proper funding, the answer might not even matter.


October 17 • 8:00 AM

Seattle, the Incredible Shrinking City

Seattle is leading the way in the micro-housing movement as an affordable alternative to high-cost city living.


October 17 • 6:00 AM

‘Voodoo Death’ and How the Mind Harms the Body

Can an intense belief that you’re about to die actually kill you? Researchers are learning more about “voodoo death” and how it isn’t limited to superstitious, foreign cultures.


October 17 • 4:00 AM

That Arts Degree Is Paying Off

A survey of people who have earned degrees in the arts find they are doing relatively well, although their education didn’t provide much guidance on managing a career.


Follow us


That Cigarette Would Make a Great Water Filter

Clean out the ashtray, add some aluminum oxide, and you've (almost) got yourself a low-cost way to remove arsenic from drinking water.

Love and Hate in Israel and Palestine

Psychologists find that parties to a conflict think they're motivated by love while their enemies are motivated by hate.

How to Water a Farm in Sandy Ground

Physicists investigate how to grow food more efficiently in fine-grained soil.

Unlocking Consciousness

A study of vegetative patients closes in on the nature of consciousness.

Advice for Emergency Alert Systems: Don’t Cry Wolf

A survey finds college students don't always take alerts seriously.

The Big One

One company, Amazon, controls 67 percent of the e-book market in the United States—down from 90 percent five years ago. September/October 2014 new-big-one-5

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