Midlife malaise is everywhere. And the pain is real.

Is the happiness curve everywhere? How big are its implications? Important new research by David Blanchflower, an economist at Dartmouth and pioneering researcher on wellbeing, suggests the answers are yes and quite.

The happiness curve is the tendency for life satisfaction to dip in midlife, a pattern which has been found in people around the world and even in chimps and orangutans. Even as evidence has mounted for it, some psychologists, economists, and other scholars have remained unconvinced. In the October 28 issue of The New Yorker, a literary critic named Arthur Krystal wrote this about the U-curve:

Lately, however, the curve has invited skepticism. Apparently, its trajectory holds true mainly in countries where the median wage is high and people tend to live longer or, alternatively, where the poor feel resentment more keenly during middle age and don’t mind saying so.

Krystal cited no evidence for his claim that the happiness curve is a first-world phenomenon, nor had I heard of any—and neither had Blanchflower, so he decided to check it out.

The result is the most comprehensive data analysis yet performed on the relationship between happiness and age. Blanchflower crunched data on about 10 million people and 132 countries. The U-shaped curve shows up almost everywhere: in rich, poor, and middling countries; where median wages are low and high; in Europe, Asia, North America, South America, Australasia, and Africa; in countries with high and low life expectancy. In advanced countries, the happiness curve bottoms out at about age 47; in developing countries, at about age 48. Exceptions are few and mostly where data are poor or non-existent. So much for first-world phenomenon. As Blanchflower concludes, “The happiness curve is everywhere.”

Those findings reveal what Blanchflower says is as close to a universal phenomenon as he has seen in his two decades studying wellbeing data. I’ll be interested to see if anyone pokes holes in them, but I suspect future scholars will identify right now as the time when the U-curve passed from being a strong hypothesis to being an established fact. At a minimum, anyone who wishes to pooh-pooh the idea from now on needs to bring some new evidence to the table, not just gestural dismissals.

Blanchflower’s second paper is, if anything, even more important. Again using more data than in any previous research, he shows that there is also an unhappiness curve. On 15 measures of unhappiness, ranging from despair and anxiety to phobias and poor sleep, he finds the mirror image of the U-shaped happiness curve, with unhappiness hill-shaped and peaking in midlife. In other words, the midlife life-satisfaction dip is reflected in real people’s lives in all kinds of ways.

Moreover, being middle-aged can compound other risk factors for misery. In other words, middle-aged people dealing with problems like unemployment, financial stress, and fraying communities have both their age and their life circumstances working against them. “The finding of a dip in wellbeing in midlife likely adds important support to the notion that being in one’s forties and fifties exacerbates vulnerability to disadvantages and shocks,” writes Blanchflower.

And still more: often these same stressed people have comparatively little by way of financial and social capital to draw on for support. “The lack of social cohesion made it harder for the weak and the vulnerable, including those going through what looks like a very natural midlife nadir of happiness,” he writes. The Great Recession brought the problem to a boil, he suspects. “In the years since the Great Recession, especially bad things seem to be happening to the prime-aged, and particularly those with less education, who are feeling left behind.”

No believes that midlife unhappiness is the only driver of, say, deaths of despair. But it is clearly a factor, and it clearly needs to be moved to the foreground of the conversation. Americans expect ourselves and each other to be at the peak of emotional self-reliance and mastery in our forties and early fifties, but the reality is that midlife is a time of unusual emotional vulnerability—and too many Americans and communities, as Blanchflower says, are breaking under the strain.

 

‘I am sometimes obsessed with changing my location’

Here’s a letter from a man I’ll call T that provides a useful reminder that midlife is a treacherous time for many people precisely because it is not an identifiable crisis. T’s situation sounds like mine at age 42: he has a good life, he has ticked all his boxes, yet he itches for something new, someplace different, a change—maybe a nonprofit, or environmental work, or even being a park ranger.

Thank you for writing The Happiness Curve. I have read many articles about the midlife experience, but your book is the most helpful yet. I am somewhat typical to the others in your study. Now 42, I have taken a circuitous path to owning my own firm, with plenty of free time and money. Great kids and a wonderful wife. And I want to take them with me to anywhere other than where I live almost daily. I am sometimes obsessed with changing my current location to one more picturesque, as I believe it would make our lives even that much better.

I also struggle with wanting something new in my career, though the one I have checks all of the boxes for me professionally and personally, and probably for any sane person. Non profit, environmental, and I have even considered taking massive pay cuts to be a park ranger!

As you wrote, one of the most helpful things for such a trough is to simply know others are going through it.

What’s notable about his message: he is not depressed, unhappy, or in crisis. He is having a midlife uncrisis. One of the most important takeaways of my research on midlife (un)happiness is that the whole “crisis” meme is wrong for many people, perhaps most. What people like T are experiencing is a transition: in their values, in their expectations, and even in their brains. They have ticked the boxes of their youthful ambitions and want something different, but they don’t yet know what that is. It’s a perfectly normal, healthy state: uncomfortable, but with a sizable payoff. If, that is, T can stay calm, avoid impulsive mistakes, and begin work planning the transition to the more other-directed goals that are starting to exert their pull on him.

I doubt he will take a massive pay cut and move his family to a park-ranger station. But I won’t be surprised to see him at a nonprofit or environmental group in his fifties. I sometimes refer to The Happiness Curve as my midlife crisis book. But of course it’s really the opposite: how the new science of happiness can help us get through midlife transition without a crisis. More than likely, T will make it.

‘Just knowing this is normal is a relief’

I can’t resist sharing this email from Caroline M. Partly because it is a nice compliment. What author could resist? Mostly, though, because it illustrates one of my book’s most important messages: knowledge is power.

If you or someone close to you experiences a midlife emotional slump, you can take steps to alleviate it (see Chapter 8), but chances are you will still have to wait it out. What is especially helpful is to understand that there is nothing wrong with you. In fact, there’s something right with you. Understanding this can go a long way toward preventing the alarm and pessimism which make the whole situation much worse and can spiral into a genuine crisis. That’s why I hope someday (soon!) midlife slump will be widely recognized and accepted as normal, natural, and healthy. Millions of people will benefit.

Here’s Caroline’s wonderful email:

Just wanted to write to say that I loved your book. It explained SO MUCH about my 40s. Great life, well in excess of what I ever dreamed of, happy marriage and family, but an unrelenting restlessness that I for the life of me couldn’t understand. Just knowing that this is a normal transition and I don’t have to radically retool my life is a relief. I have always been a happy person and I was starting to think that I would forever be less happy. Any way, thank you so much for the book. I am happier now for having read it and knowing that the transition is temporary.

Now in paperback — and in Japanese!

As many books as I have published, I still feel a flush of pride and privilege when a new edition comes out. So it is with great pleasure that I can announce two new editions. One is in Japanese, to be published on June 15 by CCC Media House. I met Kaoru Kobayashi, the editor, and Masako Tagaya, the translator, in Tokyo recently and was impressed with the care and enthusiasm they are lavishing on the book. That is something I don’t take for granted, having endured an embarrassingly sloppy foreign translation.

I’m also proud to announce, in the American market (and soon in the U.K.), the publication of Happiness Curve in paperback, with a new afterword, called “Aging Proudly.” After the book came out in hardcover, I came to think I had made encore careers and post-midlife realignment sound too smooth and easy. Ageism is arguably the most pervasive form of discrimination in the developed world, and it is a significant barrier to repurposing in later adulthood. Just as bad, it wastes acres and acres of human potential.

One other baleful effect of ageism, which is especially significant in the context of the happiness curve: it feeds the misconception that our best years are behind us after middle age. That misconception, in turn, backflows into middle age by making us unduly pessimistic. We imagine if we’re not satisfied by 50, we never will be—which makes us even more unsatisfied. The emotional reality of aging is the opposite of the stereotype. Once we see late adulthood as a time of emotional strength and growth, we will not only be better able, as a society, to harness the huge potential of people in their sixties, seventies, and even eighties; we will also be better able, as individuals, to understand the true arc of our life.

To fight ageism, the first and biggest step is to recalibrate our attitudes. We need to stop seeing late adulthood as a time of decline and sadness and instead seeing it as a time of renewed potential and often enviable contentment. Nowadays, you won’t hear me calling a memory slip a senior moment, or pretending to be embarrassed or apologetic about my age. It’s a change entirely for the better!

I’m thankful to St. Martin’s Press for the opportunity to add this important dimension to the book, and I hope you’ll investigate it. The new paperback edition is available at Amazon.com, Barnes and Noble, and, as they say, wherever fine books are sold.

‘Use your feelings, Obi-Wan, and find him you will’

Who is wiser, Yoda or Mr. Spock?

That sounds like a juvenile fanzine question, but it is actually the subject of a fascinating new paper by Igor Grossmann, Harrison Oakes, and Henri C. Santos. The answer, to cut to the chase: Yoda.

Grossmann is a psychologist at the University of Waterloo in Canada, and he is also one of the brightest young lights in the field of wisdom research. Perhaps more than anyone else, he has pioneered and refined the concept of wise reasoning, which holds that people can think and act more or less wisely at any given moment, and that wiser habits of thought can be developed and learned.

In popular lore, wisdom includes elements of detachment from personal bias and emotion. It also includes the ability to balance conflicting and complex emotions. Both pop-culture icons, Yoda and Spock, display critical acumen, complex reasoning, and selflessness. But whereas Spock “down-regulates” his emotions in favor of logic and rationality, “Yoda embraces his emotions and aims to achieve a balance between them. Yoda is known to be emotionally expressive, to share a good joke with others, but also to recognize sorrow and his past mistakes.”

Grossmann and his colleagues wondered which qualities predominate among those reasoning wisely, and the researchers realized they could bring results from five (no less) experimental studies to bear on the question. They found a significant and robust association between emotional diversity—the ability to hold and balance multiple and often conflicting emotions—and wise reasoning. They found no such correlation between down-regulating emotion and wisdom.

Why might that be? Emotions convey information. Fear, love, anger, jealousy tell us things: about threats, friends, social violations, social rivals. Blocking them out deprives us of valuable input, which makes for poorer decisions. To reason wisely, then, we need to experience and balance complex emotions—something which, it turns out, older people tend to be better at.

Ironically, one place in pop culture to find this important insight is…Star Trek. In the 1967 episode The Galileo Seven, Spock, logical and brilliant though he might be, fails to rise to the challenge of command. Intuition and emotion prove to be essential; Spock himself finally admits that an illogical outburst—his own—saves the day.

Wisdom from the wisest of all television shows.