Many things exist on a bell curve. Creativity, mastery, and optimal experience are just a few. But the relationship between age and happiness?
Actually the curve is upside down. We begin happy in childhood, and as we approach adolescence, autonomy, self-identification, and the rigors of the adult experience, happiness declines. And it continues to do so all the way through midlife.
But after midlife — somewhere around the age of 50 — something changes. Happiness once again begins to increase.
In his new book, The Happiness Curve: Why Life Gets Better After 50, Jonathan Rauch shows how the trials and tribulations of midlife prepare us for a life full of gratitude, wisdom, and happiness after 50.
After giving numerous people a questionnaire, three words that described midlife emerged: confused, searching, and scared.
And yet, there is apparently nothing wrong. “The disease model doesn’t seem to fit,” writes Rauch.
While life may begin and end with happiness, in between is a time where many things are revealed. We emerge from our childlike reverie to discover a world that often demands more than we can give, delivers less than it promises, and ceases to keep its wonder.
Rauch quotes Thomas Cole, “It is only when experience has taught us the realities of the world that we lift from our eyes the golden veil of early life; that we feel deep and abiding sorrow.”
However, drawing upon his own experiences — achieving more success than he ever imagined and finding love and security, Rauch is puzzled. He writes, “It strikes me as a crime to be blasé about these changes. Why don’t I walk around filled with fulfillment?”
Evidence, Rauch tells us, confirms that midlife is burdening, demanding, jammed with expectations.
The problem, however, is even when these things are factored out, we are still unhappy in midlife.
“The downturn is gradual, gentle, but cumulative, and it sinks into a trough, a frequently years-long slump when instead of savoring our accomplishments we question and reject them, feeling least fulfilled just when we have most cause for satisfaction,” writes Rauch.
The reward for accomplishment, strangely, is often misinterpretation. Rauch points to the work done by Carol Graham, the author of Happiness Around The World: The Paradox of Happy Peasants and Miserable Millionaires, who found that objective economic outcomes don’t equate to subjective levels of happiness: “It turns out that, of the ones that had done the best, so they had the most movement up the income ladder, roughly half said their economic situation was worse than it was before.”
What economic outcomes do — and perhaps why we pursue them — is symbolize something deeper. More money can mean more friends, greater social esteem, and as Rauch notes, applause.
However, what we make is not as important as where we perceive our ranking to be. “Our subjective wellbeing depends not on our absolute material wellbeing, not even where we stand relative to others, but where we think we stand,” writes Rauch.
These are the ingredients of Martin Seligman’s recipe for happiness, a setpoint that we inherit combined with our life circumstances and our voluntary response to them equal our happiness level.
Yet the formula, according to Rauch, is missing the element of time. Like circumstances and our responses, time is an absolute value, while aging is relative.
And both time and our response to it matter. Rauch writes, “The discovery of a relationship between age and happiness among our closest primate relatives implies that time itself — chronological age rather than social age — matters. After all, chimps age physically, but they don’t know how old they are or celebrate birthdays or retirements.”
Partly it is our response to time, but also our expectations about what time will deliver. When we are young, we consistently overestimate our future life satisfaction, and reality becomes the undertow with which our ebullient moods are soon deflated.
With age, however, the expectation gap closes and pleasant surprises, gratitude, and happiness replace disillusionment, regret, and unmet expectations.
Time will often do the work for us. As we shift from pursuing progress, adapting to gains, raising the bar, and once again tackling lofty goals, we learn that happiness exists in the connections we make — not the comparisons.
Rauch writes, “That would be an environment rich in the ingredients of sustainable satisfaction: ingredients like a high-trust social environment, adequate health and income, a goodly amount of control over our lives, and above all, strong and supportive social bonds.”
Stress declines with age, challenge and ambition don’t occupy the driver’s seat, we feel less regret, we manage our emotions better, our bias toward positive emotions increases, and we appreciate those lifelong connections that are only developed through the passage of time.
While old age may have its share of adversity, we might just be better prepared to cope with it, focusing not on the hardships, but rather the unexpected satisfactions, meaningful pursuits, and the wisdom of letting go.
Drawing upon compelling researching, fascinating interviews, and timeless wisdom, The Happiness Curve offers an insight that might just change your life: happiness exists not in the achievements and acclaim of our most productive years, but rather in the contentment of letting go of the need to pursue them.
The Happiness Curve: Why Life Gets Better After 50
Thomas Dunne Books, May 2018
Hardcover; 256 pages