In the past few years, research from scientists has shown that people don’t become fully ‘adult’ until their 30s. Academics from Cambridge University say the transition to becoming a fully-fledged adult is far more nuanced than we believe. This can happen at different ages for different people, but overall with this new decade comes some wonderful new life perks, too.
Changes in the brain and nervous system continue to occur well past 18 or 21 – the formal markers of adulthood, depending on where you live – meaning the average person doesn’t hit maturity (in cerebral terms) until they reach 30 or beyond. Naturally, as a community that celebrates people in their 30s and 40s, we already know the magical things that kick in during your third decade and beyond. But here’s further proof, according to science:
Reaching a cognitive peak
During your 30s, your mind is busy working up a storm of enduring intellectual power. For one thing, your ability to recognise faces peaks aged 32. This is an often overlooked skill, but it’s actually quite niche and variable. In fact, some scientists consider it to be a super power that taps a unique system within the human brain.
Then, there’s chess. A 2011 paper found that chess grandmasters become most successful aged 31. Problem solving, abstract thinking, strategy and determination all come into their own in your 30s. Pass us the bishop.
You may become a genius
If you’re wondering why you haven’t become the 21st century’s answer to Einstein yet, hold that thought – it’s simply a matter of timing. A 2014 paper from America’s National Bureau of Economic Research shows that scientific genius peaks in your mid to late 30s.
The majority of famous inventors and scientists achieved their career breakthroughs in this period, the economists found. Marie Curie was awarded the Nobel Prize in physics for her work on radioactivity (along with her husband Pierre) aged 36, and Sigmund Freud coined the term “psychoanalysis” just shy of his 40th birthday. Henry Ford was an almost identical age when he founded the Ford Motor Company in Detroit back in 1903.
Why your 30s? Researchers say it’s because you’ve picked up enough info in your field at this point, but also have just enough life experience to question assumed beliefs. That means you can master the kind of radical leap needed to form ground-breaking new ideas.
Higher levels of happiness
The elusive nectar that is lifetime happiness hits its zenith in your 30s. One study found people don’t feel truly happy until the age of 33, due to a combination of living in the moment and worrying less. Around 70% of those surveyed hit their happiness peak then, compared to 6% in university years and 16% in childhood.
Over half of us believe life is more fun in our early 30s, it seems. It’s a stage that heralds in more optimism and less stress than before (probably because we’ve learnt not to care so much).
“By this age, innocence has been lost, but our sense of reality is mixed with a strong sense of hope, a ‘can do’ spirit, and a healthy belief in our own talents and abilities,” says psychologist Donna Dawson. “We have yet to develop the cynicism and world-weariness that comes with later years.”
Creating more meaningful connections
Friends can be made for a reason, a season or a lifetime. And this latter category comes into its own in your 30s. A 2015 study in the journal Psychology and Aging found that we tend to whittle down our social networks aged 30 and beyond; but the friendships that last are typically higher-quality and more enduring.
Using data from the 30-year study, researchers say we invest more effort in the pals who matter to us in our 30s: our circles shift from quantity to quality. In part, this is because we know ourselves better in life’s third decade. Friendships are less about cultivating a particular identity (a means of trying on different versions of you) and more to do with long-lasting social goals around connection and meaning.
“The amount of people – and the effort we spend on people in the network – are more concentrated,” says psychiatry professor, Paul Duberstein, of the University of Rochester in New York.
Your endurance fitness rises
For short, sharp bursts of activity – sprinting, say, or 100-metre swimming – younger generations have the upper hand. But this truism does a neat head-flip when it comes to endurance fitness. Your 30s are a golden time when your strength, oxygen efficiency and coordination come together, meaning optimal performance for the sharp end of sport.
Athletes in their 30s typically perform best in gruelling long-distance triathlons and ultra-running contests. Women aged 37 and men aged 39 are most likely to finish in the top 10 of 100-mile ultra marathons, according to one study that examined performance in such races over a period of 13 years. Another survey of over 19,000 competitors in Ironman Switzerland (a challenge featuring a 112-mile bike ride, 26-mile run and 2.4-mile swim) found men reached their ‘peak’ at 31, women at 36.
Better work satisfaction
A study shows that women’s pay peaks aged 39, at around the £46,000 mark. This is a saddening sign of the gaping gender pay gap that still persists, since men’s salaries continue to grow until the age of 48, with an average pay packet of £73,000. But at least it is evidence that earnings typically jump in your 30s. With that, comes career satisfaction, too.
Studies show that the happiness we feel in our 30s is partly down to excelling at work. This is a time when we’re bringing home promotions, becoming more skilled and developing our careers in a direction of long-term happiness. Often this means radical changes, such as becoming a digital nomad. But again, in our 30s, we have the confidence to go against the status quo.
Travelling becomes more satisfying
A 2017 survey showed that 31 is the age that we truly begin to enjoy adventure travel – primarily because the emphasis switches from party time to meaningful experiences. Instead of ticking off the sights while nursing a hangover, 30-somethings have more of a tendency to do their homework, typically aiming for activities that are more off-radar and more locally orientated. Another study found that adventurers in their 30s are more likely to scrupulously research their trip.
Turns out, 37 is the age most people believe is the best time to take time out travelling, according to one survey. Respondents said this was the age you were most likely to get the benefit from visiting bucket-list destinations, such as Machu Picchu in Peru or Petra in Jordan. Again, this probably comes down to being more discerning about how and why you head abroad.
“Beaches and bars were the most interesting part of travel once, but suddenly, learning about the temples of Egypt and the tea ceremonies of Japan is what really excites us,” say 30-something Canadian duo, Nick and Dairiece, of travel blog Goats on the Road. “We used to travel a little bit on the reckless side. But these days, we’re more careful of our belongings and our wellbeing, too”.
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