A few years ago, Jonathan Rauch’s Atlantic article “The Real Roots of Midlife Crisis” was passed around avidly on social media by many people in my 40-something cohort. Rauch’s piece discussed research on the “U-curve,” which indicates that youth and old age are periods of relative happiness, while middle age is often a time of discontent and sometimes even despair. This holds true not just for people, but for primates, implying that the origins of the phenomenon “may lie partly in the biology we share with closely related great apes.”
Many of us middle-agers can identify with Rauch when he writes how he “would wake up feeling disappointed, my head buzzing with obsessive thoughts about my failures. I had accomplished too little professionally, had let life pass me by, needed some nameless kind of change or escape.” (Rauch is an award-winning and very successful journalist and author, proving that even the highest achievers are prone to this particular malaise.) Now 57, Rauch is happier and feels he’s emerged from the trough of the U and that his life is on the upswing.
He has expanded his Atlantic article into a new book, The Happiness Curve: Why Life Gets Better After 50. The research he presents is quite convincing, though it’s not difficult to come up with anecdotal counter-examples. For instance, I read this passage—”With age, apparently, we lose not our emotional sharpness, but our tendency to have our day ruined by annoyances and setbacks. Perhaps, then, positivity comes about because older people lose their emotional edge… when storms do boil up, older people have better control over their feelings”—shortly after one of the president’s more apoplectic tweets hit the news cycle. (Luckily, most people in their 70s don’t have to worry about whether or not they’re under investigation by the FBI.)
Rauch’s main goal in The Happiness Curve is to reassure people in their late 40s and early 50s that it will get better; science says so. Economist Hannes Schwandt studied people who had grown up in two very different cultures, East and West Germany, under varying economic circumstances; he found that younger people usually overestimated how happy they’d be in five years, while older Germans greatly underestimated their future life satisfaction. “‘If [people] know that life satisfaction tends to be U-shaped in everyone and previous expectations don’t match up with outcomes for most people, that could make people feel less unhappy about their life,’ Schwandt told me. Normalization, he believes, can have a double-whammy effect. ‘If you tell people there’s a light at the end of the tunnel, this already helps you. And the second thing that helps you is maybe you can break the cycle of this vicious feedback effect. By knowing this is a normal developmental stage, you will also suffer less.'”
Many of us fear aging because we fear ill health and infirmity. However, Rauch quotes a study showing that “even as people became more afflicted with disability, their self-rated successful aging increased… most people remain surprisingly happy despite getting frail and infirm.”
The Happiness Curve will provide readers with a lot of food for thought, but the scientific study of happiness is still a relatively young field and I’m sure there is still more work to be done. Ultimately, perhaps this research may one day give us insights that could help the enormous numbers of people in their 50s who struggle with issues like opioid addiction and suicide. Meanwhile, those of us with garden-variety middle-aged ennui should read the book and take its lessons to heart.
Note: The Happiness Curve will be published on May 1, 2018. Thanks to Thomas Dunne Books (via NetGalley) for the review copy.