“The Happiness Curve” by Jonathan Rauch

The Happiness CurveA 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.

“Lagom” by Niki Brantmark, “Live Lagom” by Anna Brones & “Lagom” by Linnea Dunne

There’s nothing lagom about reading three different books about the suddenly-trendy Swedish philosophy of “everything in moderation.” As a Swede by birth—I grew up and reside in the U.S., but I have spent a great deal of time in my native land—I felt compelled to evaluate which of these competing books offers the best and most Swedish advice.

Lagom by Niki BrantmarkLagom (Not Too Little, Not Too Much): The Swedish Art of Living a Balanced, Happy Life by Niki Brantmark was written by a Brit living in Malmö with her Swedish husband. The references to wellies, kirby grips and hen dos prove that the book didn’t undergo the usual Americanization prior to its publication here. Despite the somewhat anodyne nature of much of her advice (Exercise! Clean out your closet! Recycle!), Brantmark does do a thorough job of outlining Swedish attitudes to everything from child-rearing, taking breaks during the workday to enjoy a cup of coffee and a treat (fika), holidays, and foraging for mushrooms.

Best advice: “Be more punctual.” I have found this to be absolutely true, and it’s why I’m almost never late (and go into a guilt-induced frenzy if I am). “In Sweden people are used to everything working on time—buses, trains, doctor’s appointments, etc. They therefore have the expectation that whoever they’re meeting will be punctual,” a Swedish friend tells Brantmark.

Low point: I love Swedish proverbs and quote them frequently. Quite a few appear in these pages. However, at one point, Brantmark credits “A journey of a thousand miles always begins with a single step” as a “Swedish proverb.” Lao Tzu might beg to differ.

Authenticity: There are plenty of color images in the book, but most of them are generic-looking stock photos, credited to the free-pics site Unsplash. More äkta (genuinely) Swedish images would have made this book more appealing.

Live Lagom by Anna BronesLive Lagom: Balanced Living the Swedish Way by Anna Brones, the daughter of a Swedish mother and American father who grew up in the Pacific Northwest, is a bit more journalistic in its approach. I appreciated the fact that Brones sometimes looks at Sweden with a critical eye (one chapter is titled, “Is There a Darker Side to Lagom?”). She also mentions employee “burn-out,” something I wrote about during my extended stay in Stockholm 10 years ago, and the fact that the “fast fashion” purveyed by Swedish company H&M is “the antithesis of a lagom wardrobe.” (IKEA wins kudos for its “focus on sustainability.”)

However, the majority of Live Lagom is dedicated to exploring everything that’s good about the Swedish lifestyle, from interior design to the “healthy hedonism” of enjoying a freshly-baked cinnamon bun at fika. Brones does a fine job of capturing today’s Sweden, which can sometimes be a land of contradictions; she doesn’t idealize it, and I approve of that.

Words of wisdom: “There is enjoyment to be found in the outdoors in any season, and energy to be drawn from it… When we spend time outside we are also more likely to work to protect it. We cannot fight for something that we don’t know, and becoming intimate with nature turns us into better advocates for it. Sustainability becomes less of a policy buzzword and more of a mindset. We make nature a part of our value system.”

Authenticity: I applaud the fact that the photos in Brones’ book were taken by actual Swedes (the team of Nathalie Myrberg & Matilda Hildingsson). The household interiors in particular have a certain Swedish je ne sais quoi (or should I say jag vet inte vad?) that can’t be faked.

Lagom: The Swedish Art of Balanced LivingBy the time I finished Lagom: The Swedish Art of Balanced Living by Linnea Dunne, I had discovered that there were at least three other books about lagom, but I had totally maxed out on reading about the joys of cinnamon buns and spending time in nature. (Though if I could read French, I might be tempted to pick up Le Livre du Lagom by Anne Thoumieux.) Dunne grew up in Sweden and moved to Ireland as an adult, so hers is more of an insider’s guide, devoting lots of pages to the importance of consensus and the collective. She interviews Swedes like Jasper, who grows his own vegetables in his suburb’s community garden, and Angeliqa, who buys “nothing but eco toys made of wood” for her two daughters.

Dunne also devotes two pages to the Swedish phenomenon of Friday taco night, where families set up a taco bar and then settle down to watch TV. (One Swedish satellite channel shows six episodes of “Modern Family” in a row on Fridays, which seems almost a little too on the nose.)

This Lagom is probably the quickest read of the three, thanks to the image-heavy layout; however, I didn’t like the fact that much of the text is set against deeply-colored backgrounds, which made it hard to read at times:
Lagom by Linnea Dunne

Most depressing statistic for American readers: More than the others, this book really shows how far ahead Swedes are in terms of living lightly on the earth. (“Only 1% of all household waste in Sweden ends up in landfill—the rest is recycled or used to produce heat, electricity or vehicle fuel.” Sweden literally imports garbage from other nations to keep its recycling plants going.) “Swedes are generally far more trusting than other nations, and it shows—why bother with laborious recycling and composing if you don’t trust that your neighbor will follow suit?” writes Dunne. “Ideas about avoiding plastic wrappers and opting for organic alternatives are taking root because there is less cynicism than elsewhere.” Meanwhile, over here, people are still arguing about whether or not to charge for plastic bags at the grocery store, something Swedes have been doing for decades.

Bonus points: For quoting Swedish national treasure Jonas Gardell. He described Sweden as the land of mellanmjölk (roughly, 2% milk)—not too skinny, not too fat.

If I had to pick just one of these books to buy for an American reader, I think I’d select Brones’ Live Lagom. All three books do a fine job of describing the concept of lagom living, but I especially liked the layout and photos in her book. And the fact that she discusses both the positives and negatives of lagom seems very balanced to me.