Take heart if you’re stuck in the U-bend of unhappiness
A midlife crisis is a necessary part of growing up
Forget the clichés of the midlife crisis – instead, think of middle age as a low point on life’s “U-bend of happiness”, says the author of a new book.
Jonathan Rauch confesses to having, somewhere in the back of his mind, an alternative title for his new book. “Sometimes I think it could be called All The Things I Wish I’d Known at 38. Perhaps I should have put that on the jacket. It’s what it is really about.”
You can see why his publishers went for the more obviously feel-good The Happiness Curve – a decision justified by strong sales since the book’s release in the US, where it has had to be reprinted to meet demand. Yet Rauch’s substitute title sums up his own experiences during these past two decades, which gave him his raw material.
At 38, this Washington-based, prizewinning writer, journalist and social commentator had it all: a successful career, prosperity, a contented longterm relationship with his now husband, Michael. So why, he found himself wondering, was he waking up in the morning thinking: “I’m wasting my life”?It was “insane and irrational”, he recalls. How could he be dissatisfied when there was nothing to be dissatisfied with? Yet that didn’t stop the feeling growing inside him over the next few years, until it turned into a profound restlessness.
“I was unhappy about feeling unhappy and that became a spiral. I didn’t understand what was going on until, in my late 40s, I stumbled across a line of research that was quite new about ‘the happiness curve’. It seemed to me to have an explanatory power unlike anything else I had come across up to that point.”
Take any survey of happiness and they show that people’s perception of how happy they are plunges in their 40s and 50s. One chart, reproduced in Rauch’s book, shows percentages of happy 20- and 30-somethings plateauing in the early 80s, but then they tank to low 70s for 50-year-olds, before a late recovery to 84% at 69.
“One of the great misconceptions,” Rauch counsels, “is that we peak at 50, when we have a combination of life experience and physical health, and that afterwards it is a slide downhill.” Instead, he insists, all the evidence points to happiness being more of a U-bend, with the aspirations of young adulthood separated by a deep trough from what Rauch labels the “encore adulthood” of mature years.Now 58, he is convinced that he has navigated an under-reported, under-recognised “midlife malaise”, and so wants to share his accumulated wisdom on how to make it through. “I spent much of my 40s thrashing around,” he reflects, “looking for an explanation for this downswing in satisfaction. After five years, I started to imagine that I would never escape it.”
That was when – as part of his work as a contributing editor on The Atlantic magazine and a senior research fellow at Washington thinktank the Brookings Institution – this Arizona-born, Yale-educated writer stumbled across research on the happiness curve.
This isn’t, he stresses, one of those fashionable theories that have been plucked out of thin air. “Scientifically, there are several things going on at once,” he explains. “First of all our expectations change in our 40s. It is a natural process where we outgrow the optimism of youth about how happy achievement will make us. And then our values also change as we age, and we focus on the more important things like human relationships. And finally the brain changes. Older brains are more positive and less prone to emotional volatility.”The first of this trio creates the dissatisfaction. The second often prompts a complete reassessment of life. And the arrival of the third signals a return to happiness, but only, Rauch cautions, if we avoid the pitfalls of stage two.
“Humans are bad at attributing the causes of our happiness and unhappiness, so it is important to understand that, in a lot of cases, a big part of what is going on in this midlife malaise is simply the ageing process. And that, all things being equal, the best thing to do is often just wait it out and try to avoid mistakes.”
Like too-hasty divorces, embarking on new unsuitable careers, or splashing out on an open-top sports car? The latter is, of course, the cliché of male midlife crisis, and one that Rauch’s steady, calm, soothing therapist-like voice (though he has no professional training save a history degree) somehow encourages me to confess, as if on the psychiatrist’s couch.He is more interested, by way of response, in my use of the phrase “midlife crisis” than in the car I believed would make me feel young again. “You can’t talk about a midlife crisis,” he corrects me, “because there is no crisis, unless you make it one. What I am describing is something slow and gradual.”
And it is, he stresses, something – unlike buying a ridiculously unsuitable motor when you have two children – that is just as likely to happen to men as women. “The happiness curve is the pure effect of time – in other words after you take out having children, marriage, family, career breaks, health, ethnicity, cars and everything else. It is what age is doing all by itself, and that what’s confusing about it. Because we assume that our life satisfaction will depend on our own circumstances.”
Those circumstances may mask or exacerbate the happiness curve, he concedes, but they are external to it. “Of course men’s lives and women’s lives are different, because of career and kids and all of that, but the happiness curve isn’t about that. It is about time.”
Though Rauch’s book comes out of his own lived experience – a hallmark of his acclaimed outings in print as both an author and a journalist on, for example, being an introvert, in a same-sex marriage, or shouldering the often hidden strain of caring for elderly relatives – he doesn’t want to go too far into the “foolish things” he almost did when he was a deeply dissatisfied 45-year-old. Instead he offers advice (from himself and others) on how to mitigate the worst risks of the midlife dip.“There is no magic bullet. To some extent you will have to wait it out, but there are things that can help.” He lists meditating, “self-medicating” with music (a personal favourite of his) and cognitive therapy. “It can be useful to interrupt your inner voices of self-recrimination.”
He also believes passionately that those currently stuck in the U-bend of happiness mustn’t isolate themselves out of shame. It is a conviction, he explains, that comes out of his own painful experience of being in the closet as a gay man until he was 25. “Keeping things private and locked up in shame, when one has no reason to be ashamed,” he remembers, “is a tortured existence.”
With midlife malaise, those most at risk of falling victim to unnecessary shame are, he says, the high achievers. “There is a lot of pressure on midlife people to display as Masters of the Universe, as in command of every situation, able to deal with everything confidently. They are very reluctant to express shame and make themselves vulnerable.”
But they must, he urges, if they are ever to reach the happiness highlands to which he is now being carried on his own curve – with, he says, nothing more than a twinge of arthritis in one knee to worry him in the mornings when he wakes up.Three lessons from The Happiness Curve, an extract by Jonathan Rauch
The expectations trap
Midlife malaise is often about nothing
In midlife you’re feeling miserable about the past and the future at the same time. When you’re 25, a disappointing year is just a bump in the road. Next year will be better! But then what if next year brings another disappointment? Things are pretty good, but you’re not as contented as you expected to be.
Then the same thing happens the next year. And the next. After a while, it dawns on you that disappointment seems to be a permanent feature of life. If the transition to realism sounds dreary and gloomy, take heart. The draining away of unrealistic optimism, although a grind when under way, can cast a freshening light on life.
Take Margaret. An Australian in her early 50s, her 40s brought uncertainty, unsettledness, a series of jobs that didn’t feel right – but her 50s? “Industrious” and “settled” are the terms she uses. When I probed, I learned that by “settled” she means that she has settled down, but also that she has settled for. “It’s good enough. I’ve accepted an area of work that’s not my ideal, but it’s still very satisfying.”
Meanwhile, she finds satisfaction in pursuits that might have seemed less worthwhile to her younger, more ambitious self. A piece of jewellery broke, so she took a jewellery-making course. She learned to knit. She took sewing lessons. “I come out of it feeling so refreshed and relaxed, like I’ve had a big rest.” She describes herself as happier than she has ever been. She uses the word “awakened”.Wisdom comes from hardship
Elliott Jaques, introducing the concept of midlife crisis in 1965, regarded it as a time of danger, but also opportunity. “It is a period of purgatory – anguish and depression,” he wrote. But it can also bring rewards. “The sense of life’s continuity may be strengthened.”
The gain is in the deepening of awareness, understanding and self-realisation. “Genuine values can be cultivated – of wisdom, fortitude and courage, deeper capacity for love and affection and human insight, and hopefulness and enjoyment.” He described midlife crisis as a “process of transition [that] runs on for some years.” I think this idea is right.
As I interviewed people about their midlife transitions, and their lives afterward, I heard reflections suggesting a reorientation of personal values away from ambition and toward connection. I came to believe that the feelings and themes I heard add up to more than just a hard-knocks lesson in realism or a random suite of changes in the brain. The transition has a direction – even a purpose.
Getting old actually makes you happierOne snowy morning, I visited my 94-year-old neighbour Nora. She had always had a cheerful emotional thermostat, but had seen her share of hardship: a poor childhood; her husband’s death at the age of only 52; the loss of a grown grandchild; the challenge of caring at home for an older sister with dementia.
Nora was hobbled by a broken kneecap and was a recent cancer survivor, and she noticed her mental acuity diminishing when she played bridge. Of course, at 94, she had lost many friends. She wasn’t housebound, but she couldn’t go about much, and after an hour of activity she needed to sit and rest.
Those are the sorts of struggles and losses that made my father expect the worst from ageing, but Nora’s judgment was unequivocal: “100% satisfied with everything.” She scored her life satisfaction a perfect 10. The key to her longevity, she said, is good genes. And the key to satisfaction? “I would say enjoy every day as it comes. Take what the day brings. Accept it.” It’s not that hardship and loss don’t exist. It’s that, as she told me, “you don’t mind it as much”.
Nora’s acceptance did not strike me as passivity or resignation. It was more a kind of savouring: of the moment, of the day. Her life might be objectively slower and emptier, but it was subjectively rich and satisfying. I wondered whether I will achieve as much equanimity if I reach Nora’s age. A lot of science suggests that my chances are good. I am not promising bliss in your 80s. Just as there is no guarantee of having a midlife slump, there is no guarantee of having a late-life upswing. The river has regular undercurrents, but no two voyages are alike.
- © The Daily Telegraph