I couldn’t have known that in midlife it is perfectly natural to feel dissatisfied without having anything to be dissatisfied about. I couldn’t have known I was entering an adjustment period that occurs not only in humans but in chimps and orangutans, too. I n 2000, when I turned forty, evident of what scholars call the U-shaped life-satisfaction curve had only just begun to surface…
To an extent, the evidence confirms what we all know: the middle years of adult life are often the most restless, stressed, and unhappy. Of course, midlife stress can come from the burdens of demanding jobs and jammed schedules and teenaged kids and aging parents. But here is where the evidence and the conventional wisdom part ways: the midlife dip in happiness show up even after factoring out the stresses and strains and ups and downs of life. In fact, it shows up especially after factoring out the stresses and strains and ups and downs of life. The passage of time, by itself, affects how satisfied and grateful we feel – or more precisely, how easy it is to feel satisfied and grateful.
Jonathan Rauch, renowned journalist and bestseller, writes the above passage in his book The Happiness Curve: Why Life Gets Better After 50. He describes the lives of multiple people who are dissatisfied and unhappy in the forties and then achieve greater happiness in their fifties. He explains that there is a happiness curve – a U-shaped one – that begins with happiness in our youth, dips in midlife, and then rises again in our fifties. What is it about the ages or the passage of time that affects our happiness? And, are we destined to be less happy in our forties or can we swing the curve in our favor earlier?
First, let’s examine why people might be happy in the youth. According to economist Hannes Scwandt who Jonathan Rauch cites in his book, “When you’re young, you don’t really feel so much regret, because even if things don’t turn out so well at the beginning, you think there’s time. You don’t really care so much.” When you’re in your early twenties, you can brush off a bad year or two, there’s no reason to stress.
With the passing of time, though, people begin to look back on previous years and feel dissatisfaction (even if this is completely subjective and someone on the outside would think that they were doing great). This buildup, year after year, leads to disappointment that seems to a permanent feature of life. All of a sudden, a person in his or her forties looks back and feels disappointment and subsequently looks forward and has fewer and lesser expectations. Essentially, in midlife, you are being hit from two directions at once. As Schwandt puts it, “On the one hand, you feel all this disappointment about your past. And then also your expectations evaporate for the future. So in midlife you’re feeling miserable about the past and the future at the same time.”
Somehow, though, Rauch’s research shows that the happiness curve picks up again when people enter their fifties. Why is that? Rauch ends his book with the statement, “If I had to explain the upside of the U in just three words, the words I would use are: Gratitude comes easier. That is the hidden gift of the happiness curve. It is worth the wait.”
For those of you who don’t want to wait until you’re in your fifties and want to work on getting happy now, Rauch suggests the following steps:
Normalize. Understand that the disappointment you are feeling in your forties is normal. It’s a natural progression of the way we age. It helps to understand that you are not alone.
Interrupt the internal critics. So much of what bothers us in our forties are those voices that tell us that things should be different. Self-criticism is good, but too much of it can take a real toll on happiness.
Stay present. Today, there’s lots of talk about mindfulness, living in the moment. The frustrations we feel in the middle of the U-curve come from looking backward and forward. Instead, look at the present.
Share. There’s a lot of loneliness associated with disappointment. As author Brene Brown, who I have written about before for this publication, points out, shame make us withdraw. The antidote to this is to connect, to share with others.
Step, don’t leap. Our natural instinct when in the dip of the happiness curve is to scream “get me out of here” and run for the hills. That restlessness will more likely lead you right back to the dip. Instead, take it slow, make good decisions and understand you will get out.
Wait. This is the least helpful of the steps that Rauch suggests, but also the most hopeful. Like wine and some cheeses, Rauch argues happiness gets better with age.
Perhaps most importantly, Rauch hopes to help people by bringing this phenomenon to light. If we all understand that we are struggling with the same thing, we can struggle (and succeed!) together.