Jonathan Rauch, fellow of the Brookings Institution was so overwhelmed by the competitiveness and hollow drive for success when he was in his forties that he wrote a book about his personal experiences. The book “The Happiness Curve; Why life gets better after 50” is reviewed by the Guardian newspaper, and posts the following commentary:
When Jonathan Rauch fell into the doldrums in his 40s, he had no idea why. Life was good: he had a successful career, a solid relationship, good health and sound finances. Then he learnt about the happiness curve and it all became clear.
Academics have found increasing evidence that happiness through adulthood is U-shaped — life satisfaction falls in our 20s and 30s, then hits a trough in our late 40s before increasing until our 80s.
Forget the saying that life begins at 40 — it’s 50 we should be looking toward.
“The most surprising thing is that age tends to work in favour of happiness, other things being equal,” he tells the Guardian. “The most strange thing is that midlife slump is often about nothing.”
Hold off on splashing out on that flashy sports car or embarking on an affair though. It is not the same as a midlife crisis, which according to the stereotype demands an urgent, rash response. The slump isn’t caused by anything, according to Rauch. It is a natural transition, simply due to the passing of time.
“It’s a self-eating spiral of discontent,” he says. “It’s not because there’s something wrong with your life, or your marriage, or your mind, or your mental health.”
Rauch details a raft of research in his book to back up his claims. A 2008 study by economists David Blanchflower and Andrew Oswald found the U-curve — with the nadir, on average, at age 46 — in 55 of 80 countries, and they cited more than 20 other papers finding the U. It tends to show up in wealthier countries where people live longer, healthier lives. Life satisfaction statistics for the UK in 2014–15 show happiness declining from youth through middle age, hitting a low at 50 and rising to a peak at 70.
Rauch tells the Guardian: “That’s a very profound insight because what we’re talking about here is not that the conditions of your life change in some huge way, but how you feel about your life changes.”
Rauch puts forward various explanations for why we feel happier in our 50s and beyond.
Research shows that older people feel less stress and regret, dwell less on negative information and are better able to regulate their emotions. Nor is status competition as important.
Rauch says: “We seem to be wired to seek maximum status when we are young — the ambition to be on top of the world, to have the big job, to have the extraordinary marriage to the wonderful person or lots of money. Or some form of greatness, which is what I dreamed of in my 20s, to write some book that would outdo Shakespeare.”
We are over-optimistic in youth about how much satisfaction we will get out of our future successes, he believes.
“As we get into our 30s and 40s, we’ve achieved most of those things, but we’re not wired to sit back and enjoy our status.
“The same ambition that made us status hungry makes us hungry for more status. We’re on the hedonic treadmill. We don’t feel the satisfaction we expected, so we think there’s something wrong with our lives.”
As we get older, our values change. “You hear people say, ‘I don’t feel the need to check those boxes any more’, or ‘I don’t care that much what other people think’.”
Older people feel relieved of a burden that makes it easier to savour other simpler pursuits such as spending time with grandchildren, a hobby or volunteer work.
Rauch would like to see more help for people to relaunch themselves after this midlife transition, including greater opportunities for adult learning and companies creating more part-time positions or allowing gap years.
“There’s a huge amount of untapped wisdom and potential to be unlocked. Because of the happiness curve, they’re often in a position where they want to give back. They want to be mentors, they want to be volunteers and they want to work at not so difficult jobs which allow them to use their skills.”
Rauch has a few tips for relieving midlife malaise, such as talking to friends about it and understanding it’s normal. It is also helpful to stop comparing yourself to others, he says.
But if all that makes no difference, give it time. As Rauch approaches 60, he feels ever more grateful for his life. He wishes he’d known this when he was in the trough of the curve because, as he says: “It’s worth the wait.”
There is a consolation for retirees and those planning their retirement to ignore some of the nastier ageism and negative responses from ill-informed people and to bask in the wisdom of a mature happiness.