The Happiness Curve: Why Life Gets Better After 50, by Jonathan Rauch (Thomas Dunne, 256 pp., $26.99)
The mid-life crisis is a cliché: balding, paunchy man in red sports car, frantically trying to convince himself that women still find him attractive. Implicit in the word “crisis” is a sudden change. You wake up some day in your forties to realize that you are no longer young. The resulting angst—it’s all straight downhill to death from here—nudges people to do crazy things.
The truth is more complex, writes Jonathan Rauch in his new book, The Happiness Curve: Why Life Gets Better After 50. Across cultures and demographics, people’s life satisfaction declines in their forties. It is rarely a crisis, though; it’s more of a malaise. But then a funny thing happens around age 50. Mood bottoms out and begins to climb. Indeed, people in their sixties and seventies report themselves as being far happier than they ever imagined they’d be. As people live longer, these happy golden decades represent a major opportunity. “We are in the process of adding perhaps two decades to the most satisfying and pro-social period of life,” Rauch writes. “It is a gift the likes of which mankind has never known before”—if society is willing to seize it, and if people can make it through the trough of the happiness curve. (Not all can, as recent high-profile suicides remind us, though fortunately most midlife unhappiness does not develop into clinical depression.)
Perhaps because happiness seems like a fluffy subject, Rauch spends the bulk of his book meticulously presenting evidence for the existence of a U-shaped happiness curve over people’s lifespans. He argues that it has little to do with external circumstances. Big-data analysis of reported happiness levels reveals this curve in countries with diverse cultures and levels of development. Even primates go through a mid-life dip in mood (as measured by their keepers). Since apes aren’t subject to a youth-glorifying commercial culture, this suggests a biological basis for the phenomenon.
The general thought is that young people are wired to be strivers. They are, like the young man in Thomas Cole’s famous series of paintings, The Voyage of Life, reaching toward castles in the sky. But at some point, this tendency to external, upward comparison catches up with everybody. You realize that you’re not going to achieve everything you thought you would. Or—more insidiously—you have achieved much of what you thought you would, but your brain creates other desires, seemingly just to torment you.
Rauch reports going through such a slump himself, and his own story makes for the most compelling part of the book. In his forties, he had a life his twentysomething self could only dream about. Not only was he working as a journalist and winning awards, he was happily partnered and later married, a relationship largely accepted by neighbors in a way a young gay man growing up decades ago would not have thought possible. So why wasn’t he happier? “I felt ashamed of my ingratitude and embarrassed by my dissatisfaction,” he writes. He wasn’t clinically depressed, just chronically unhappy, a fact that he largely kept to himself. And yet at some point, the fog began to lift. Despite objective reasons to be unhappy—his parents’ deaths, his magazine job disappearing—“my obsessive habit of comparing myself with others, always to my own disadvantage, diminished,” he writes. He had emerged on the other side of the curve and was able to throw himself into new work and to enjoying relationships.
With Rauch’s mental journey mirrored in larger social statistics, the takeaway is that the midlife slump is “completely normal and natural. Like teething or adolescence, it is a healthy if sometimes painful transition, and it serves a purpose by equipping you for a new stage of life,” he writes. As older people become less focused on their own striving, they become more ready to serve society. With people experiencing good health well into their seventies (or later), this is a great opportunity for society to change the narrative of aging: stop glorifying the golf course, and instead make it easier to plug into mentoring and volunteering opportunities.
Of course, knowing that the happiness slump is normal doesn’t change its misery. For all the evidence presented about the curve’s existence, Rauch’s advice for getting through it is cursory (share how you feel, stay present) and somewhat unsatisfying. Indeed, much of it boils down to waiting. “It gets better,” he writes. “Most people can wait, if they need to,” trying to keep themselves from doing anything too crazy. Likewise, while the happiness curve may be close to universal, the narrative that he adopts—20- and 30-something striving, with a midlife turn toward caring for others—is somewhat unsatisfying, too. For starters, it might fit a male model of life more than a female one. Many women have already spent their twenties and thirties caring for other (smaller) people. And a pro-social tilt is far from universal among the senior set, as anyone suggesting spending less on Social Security and Medicare, and more on programs for children and young families, soon discovers.
Still, acknowledgement of a broad psychological phenomenon can be helpful for anyone facing the slump. We know the awkwardness of adolescence doesn’t last forever. One of the most misery-producing aspects of the midlife slump is the fear that this sour mood will last until death. It won’t for most people, and knowing that might save a few marriages and careers. It might even mean fewer red sports car sales, and that on its own is not such a bad thing.
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