“The Happiness Curve”: Beyond Midlife Transition

Like adolescence, the happiness dip at midlife is developmentally predictable, and can be aggravated by isolation, confusion, and self-defeating thought patterns. Like adolescence, it can lead to crisis, but it is not, in and of itself, a crisis. Rather, like adolescence, it generally leads to a happier stage. Jonathan Rauch, The Happiness Curve: Why Life Gets Better After 50

What exactly is this “happiness curve” that journalist Jonathan Rauch has written his new book about? It’s “a common, U-shaped path from youthful idealism, through middle-aged disappointment, to eventual happiness” (Publishers Weekly) that various studies, including his own, support as a common part of the human life cycle:

In researching the topic, Rauch gave interviewees a questionnaire about their satisfaction level at the present and at earlier ages, finding that those in their 40s often describe feeling profoundly dissatisfied, even when there seemed no compelling reason to be so. Older subjects reported feeling the same demoralization during their 40s, but also increased satisfaction at their present age and even a ‘rebirth of gratitude.’ What’s the reason for that return to contentment? It can be multilayered, Rauch says; it may surface as ‘a sense of mastery.’ Or it may be that ‘settling increases our contentment.’

“It’s important to remember that the happiness curve is just the effect of aging all by itself,” Rauch told Mary Elizabeth Williams, Salon. “It’s independent of income, education, employment, health, children, marital status and everything else. It’s actually something time is doing all by itself.”

Not everyone, of course, experiences that sense of midlife discontentment, but time and aging do take their toll on many. Furthermore, those who feel the toll aren’t necessarily having what’s commonly called a “midlife crisis”—it could be more of a “slump” or a “transition.”

“One thing I try to get away from in the book,” Rauch tells Parade, “is the use of the term midlife crisis because it’s misleading. In fact, it’s a long gradually sloping curve in which you gradually find it harder to be contented in your thirties and forties and then you gradually find it gets easier to be contented for the rest of your life.”

Rauch’s own 40’s-ish “general sense of malaise that didn’t match the positive place he was in his life as a successful writer, with a generally satisfying life” was the life challenge that spurred him to research this topic (Marci Alboher, Next Avenue). “(H)e refers to ‘an accumulated drizzle of disappointment which can become self-sustaining but is quite unlike clinical depression or anxiety’.”

Now 58, Rauch learned that becoming happier post-50 involves a few factors: more realistic expectations, values that start to lean further into cooperation and community, and brain changes that contribute to increased emotional well-being.

As Rauch writes in the New York Post:

In our later decades, we experience less stress, regret and emotional volatility; we become better at balancing mixed emotions and more inclined toward a positive outlook (a so-called positivity effect); our interpersonal skills and experience help ourselves and others navigate social complexities. Older people are not more inclined to depression; in fact, evidence suggests that the positivity effect of aging helps protect us from the emotional downside of physical decline. ‘The peak of emotional life may not occur until well into the seventh decade,’ writes Laura Carstensen, a psychologist and the director of the Stanford University Center on Longevity.

But does everyone get happier after 50? Of course not, “because factors such as divorce, unemployment or illness can counter this. But, other things being equal, the U-curve holds” (Lucy RockThe Guardian).

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