Do you know why people fell into the doldrums in their 40s although their life looks good?
Maybe you have ever heard about the curves of life, which includes happiness or success? Of course you remember the saying, “life begins at 40s.”
Academics have found evidence that life begins at 50s, and that happiness through adulthood is U-shaped – the life satisfaction falls in our 20s and 30s and then hits a trough in our late 40s before increasing until our 80s.
“The most surprising thing is that age tends to work in favour of happiness, other things being equal,” Jonathan Rauch tells the Guardian. “The strangest thing is that midlife slump is often about nothing.”
Rauch, a senior fellow at the US thinktank the Brookings Institution, when he found the explanation for the gloom that hit him and many others in middle age wrote a book, which includes personal stories, the latest data and illuminating interviews with economists, psychologists and neuroscientists.
The midlife crisis, according to the stereotype, demands an urgent, rash response, but Rauch supports, "the slump 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.”
Not everyone will experience a sunnier outlook in their 50s and beyond, Rauch acknowledges, because factors such as divorce, unemployment or illness can counter this. But, other things being equal, the U-curve holds.
Rauch, an author and journalist, adds: “Those most likely to notice the arrow of time are the people without a lot of other change or difficulty in their life. Things seem to be going well for them, they’re achieving their goals, and nothing much has changed. They think, ‘Why do I feel less satisfied than I expected to? Why is this going on year after year? Why does it seem to be getting worse and not better? There must be something wrong with my life.’
“Well, there’s nothing wrong with your life, you’re just feeling the effects of time which others who may have more turbulent lives may not notice as much.”
Rauch mother suffered from depression and his parents broke up when he was 12, leaving his father to bring up three children on his own. Two years later, his father, a stressed and overworked lawyer in his mid-40s, lost his biggest client.
Rauch remembers himself at 20, keen to accomplish something worthwhile by middle age and believing that when he did, he’d appreciate it.
By his 40s, Raugh had surpassed his dreams. He had published books; he was winning journalism prizes; he was in a relationship; he lived in an area of north Virginia with a strong sense of community. Yet he was preoccupied with what he had not achieved.
He explains: “I had good health, I met one goal after another with more success than I’d ever expected. Yet around the time I turned 40 I noticed this strange feeling of restlessness, worthlessness and discontent. In my 45 the winning of the most prestigious award in magazine journalism [a National Magazine award] gave me a great feeling of satisfaction with my life for approximately 10 days.”
Raugh was still think, “there must be something wrong with me.” He believed his personality had begun to turn dark in some way and that of course compounded the problem.
The fog on Raugh mind began to lift in his 50s despite the death of both his parents, the loss of his magazine job and the failure of a startup venture.
Karla, 54, is on the upswing of the curve. She tells Rauch, “On a day-to-day basis I probably do the same things, but I feel different. I savouring my friendships more, I feel more organized and efficient. Now I feel grateful for the now,”
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 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.”
“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.
“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.” Rugh says as he approaches 60.
By Lucy Rock