‘I’m not 40; I’m 29’

I recently received a couple of challenging emails asking different versions of the same question. What if I’m experiencing the classic symptoms of midlife malaise…but I’m in my 20s or 60s rather than my 40s? What’s that about?

Here’s M:

Points you’ve covered, I feel, directly apply to the way I feel on a regular basis. I was very surprised how applicable and accurate the happiness curve is to my life currently. I’ve never been able to really describe the way I feel but you’ve hit the nail on the head here.

Here’s the thing: I’m not in my 40s, or my 30s, I’m 29. The happiness curve concept seems to be accepted as a common occurrence for many middle aged people. How common are these feelings for those of us who would not be considered middle age? Am I ahead of the curve or, prior to middle age, are these feelings attributed to something else other than the curve?

I just hope this doesn’t mean an extra 10 years of feeling unsatisfied and battling my internal critic every step of the way.

And this is from J:

Wondering if my trough hit me at 65. Married at 40. Three great kids. Successful. … I know there’s more to life and I’ve worked at food pantries, been overlooked at certain positions because of my age etc. so I feel every day goes way too slow! Some genetic causes but I have a hard time getting upbeat each day.

Do you feel because my married life and kids started so late I am now in my trough because of my late start, or am I just finding it so hard to adjust with my three changes?

This answer may seem a bit of a cop-out (in fact, it may be a bit of a cop-out), but the answer is: the happiness curve can’t answer M’s and J’s questions. Persistent and seemingly excessive disappointment is certainly most likely in middle age, but it can happen at any age. And it can happen for any or all of multiple reasons: age-related dissatisfaction, or real-world setbacks and problems, or boredom or changing values, or sometimes chronic depression. Unfortunately, our satisfaction level does not come with its causes clearly apportioned and labeled. And introspection is unreliable.

That’s one reason it is important not to try to work these issues through in the lonely space of one’s own head. Counselors and coaches can help sort things out and have seen these issues before.

When I was 28, I felt bored and disappointed. I thought that was because I needed to change my professional direction. Fortunately, my diagnosis was accurate. Once I started freelancing and working on some ambitious new projects, my sense of purpose and progress came back. My guess, just a guess, is that M might benefit from a guided reassessment. True for many people at many ages!

As for J, it is indeed possible that a late start on marriage and kids might have nudged his happiness curve some years to the right. If it takes a person longer to check off the boxes on his to-do list, revaluation might come later on in life. On the other hand, J mentions having “three huge transitions” (retirement, empty nest, and a grown son’s health crisis). So he has a lot going on. (Social scientists might say his dissatisfaction is overdetermined.) My guess is that his satisfaction will improve as the aging process proceeds and as he works through his adjustments.

No guarantees, alas. Keep writing, everyone!

‘The bottom of the “U” and my menopause happened at the same time’

Talking about The Happiness Curve, I often get asked about menopause. It hits in midlife and obviously has major physical and emotional effects. Here’s an email I received recently from a woman I’ll call H:

I have recently read your amazing book and wanted to thank you. I have been struggling for a number of years now and not understanding why, nor being able to get myself out of the “funk.” Your work has helped me enormously, comforted me, and given me the words and ideas to share and discuss with my husband. He is grateful too!!

I wanted to ask you if during your research for the book and in talking to so many people and experts whether for women, the menopause was mentioned as a contributing factor. For myself, the bottom of the “U” and my menopause happened at the same time and part of what I was feeling about my life was very closely tied up with body changes, the end of my reproductive life, how sexy I felt/feel. I saw it as a clear indication of the beginning of the road to decline physically, and this affected my self-esteem, outlook on life etc significantly. I could talk more about the details but my reason for contacting you is to ask if there is any research that you know of that I could read.

The somewhat surprising answer is that there’s no sign of meaningful differences between men and women where the pure effect of aging is concerned. Which means no effect of menopause  shows up.

I don’t know why, and I haven’t seen any studies that address the question specifically. One possibility is that the data are flawed. But at this point there’s so much data from so many places covering so many people and years that if the happiness curve were gendered, it would have shown up by now.

Another possibility is that for some women menopause just isn’t that big a deal, at least emotionally, and that for others it has both positive and negative effects on life satisfaction—so it’s kind of a wash.

Yet another possibility is that menopause has less effect on overall life satisfaction than it does on moment-to-moment emotions. Remember, the U-shaped curve measures how satisfying and rewarding we feel our lives to be overall, not how cheerful or worried or stressed we feel right now. Those two forms of happiness are very different, and people have no trouble telling them apart. Perhaps many women see menopause as important physically but not something they judge their lives by.

Or it could be some of all of the above. I dunno. We have a lot left to learn about aging and wellbeing…and so far, a lot of what we’ve learned has been surprising.

 

‘I know it’s pointless. I’ve run out of time.’

Take a couple of minutes to read a splendid little essay in the New York Times by Wajahat Ali, about “A Midlife Crisis in the Age of Trump.” Wajahat does a good job summarizing a major accelerant of a midlife feedback loop: the seemingly overwhelming feeling that time is running out.

It’s not true, of course. Wajahat is only 37. He’s already an accomplished writer, a television commentator, a performed playwright, a husband and father, and more. Yet, he writes,

I fear that I’ll never accomplish my “to do list by 40,” which includes writing that best-selling novel, creating that epic comic book hero and hosting a talk show that I imagine could bring understanding to a polarized country.

In his mind, this wasn’t supposed to happen to him:

I used to think a midlife crisis was a problem manufactured by privileged suburbanites. But my personal angst combined with my anxiety about the state of the country have made mine feel very real.

His experience is very much like mine and many others’. Starting in my late thirties, and then intensifying into my mid-forties, I couldn’t ward off pestiferous feelings and ideations that nothing I was doing in my life was worthwhile. Compounding those feelings was a sense that time was closing in on me. If I didn’t quit my job and light out for Africa (or wherever) to win a Nobel prize right now, it would soon be too late.

When I spoke with him at a conference in April, I told Wajahat that this really isn’t about his actual career or accomplishments; it’s a psycho-emotional transition that will go on for a number of years, with a major payoff after 50. That ever-so-urgent to-do list will recede in importance as his values shift away from racking up points on life’s social scoreboard and toward core relationships and connections. He will come to feel, as an older friend told me when I was in my 40s, that ambition is overrated.

He got that, but his reaction, understandably, was (as he writes): “What? I have to wait until 50? Hell no!”

What can help Wajahat right now? His own strategy: “I went back and recommitted to my ‘to do list,’ but with one major edit: I deleted ‘by 40’ and added ‘inshallah’ (Arabic for God willing).” He is using his rational mind to de-emphasize the artificially short time horizon which his feelings are trying to impose on him.

If Wajahat keeps reminding himself to delete “by 40” from his thoughts, he’s doing a kind of home-brew cognitive behavioral therapy: breaking self-defeating thought patterns. That’s a useful strategy, though not a complete solution, because his feelings, not his reasoning mind, are running the show.

By the same token, it’s also useful to know—and to remind ourselves—that the idea that we peak in midlife and then slide into physical and developmental decline is bunkum. In fact, people nowadays often stay physically healthy and developmentally vigorous into their eighties, and they tap sources of joy and depths of contentment that were not available to them at 37. On the odds, Wajahat is nowhere near his peak. Society’s stereotypes about aging are part of the reason so many people feel in middle age that time is running out.

Message to Wajahat and others sharing his feelings: you have lots of time. And the transition you’re experiencing will help you use it better. Understanding those facts is not a magic bullet in midlife (there is none), but it helps ease the time trap.

‘I have spent years feeling like an underachiever or a fraud’

I’m often asked whether just knowing about midlife slump can ameliorate it. The answer is yes. Not eliminate it, mind you. For those who experience it, age-related dissatisfaction is a stage in our developmental process which, like adolescence or any other developmental stage, serves a purpose and needs to unfold. But the natural slump is greatly magnified by alarm and worry. What’s wrong with me? Will this go on forever? Just knowing there’s nothing wrong with us can make a big difference by reducing the fear factor.

Here’s an example: an email I received recently from C, a middle-aged lawyer (edited slightly to obscure identifying details).

By any objective measure I have lived a life that I should feel content with. As the son of immigrants who grew up on the wrong side of the tracks the trajectory of my life has defied all logic. I put myself through undergraduate and law school, served as a senior adviser to a governor, and have earned a nice living working for a very well-respected national law firm. I have lived a life free of crime or addiction, enjoy excellent health, make a nice income, am blessed with the best son anyone could ask for, etc. etc. Yet like you shared in your book, I have spent the last few years looking around and wondering what went wrong. In many ways I have spent years either feeling like an underachiever or a fraud that will eventually be exposed.

All those feelings have been slowly fading; thanks in no small part to you. Thankfully I started the reaching out to friends and potential allies prior to reading your book. However, reading The Happiness Curve not only validated the steps I had begun to take, it put words to feelings I have been experiencing since I turned 42. I could go on an on describing all of the benefits I have gained from your book, but I can only imagine that your inbox must be full of stories like mine.

In closing, it is important to me that you know that if you accomplish nothing else the rest of your life you have provided an invaluable gift to a complete stranger. I hope you spend the day after reading my email feeling great about yourself. The words you shared in your book have made my life better — for that I thank you from the bottom of my heart.

Comments:

First off: thank you. Though I hope The Happiness Curve sells many copies, I didn’t write it for money. (There are much better ways to get rich than by writing books!) I hoped to share what I wish I had known when I was 40. And, yes, I have received other testimonials like C’s. I treasure each one of them. Finding and sharing knowledge that helps people is the highest goal and privilege of journalism.

Second point: C’s message exemplifies the elements which make midlife dissatisfaction so mystifying and frustrating—and which make understanding it so helpful. As I did at his age, he tallies his blessings and achievements, but counting his blessings only underscores the gap between his objective accomplishments and his subjective dissatisfaction. Casting about for an explanation, he invents spurious feelings of being an underachiever and a fraud. But he knows he is being irrational, which makes him question his mental health. A truly vicious cycle!

His message also shows how getting better information can reduce the cycle’s momentum. Just reading a description of the problem provides relief: Others have been here. Learning the science behind it helps even more: Oh! So I’m not crazy! Perhaps best of all, C. knows his emotional slump is normal, productive, and almost certainly temporary. Light at the end of the tunnel!

Third: Everyone will be better off when the phenomenon of age-related dissatisfaction (no, not “midlife crisis”) is widely recognized and socially accepted, with no stigma or shame attached. No one needs to be blindsided or scared. Let’s all get the word out.

‘It’s easier now to shrug off failure’

The New York Times has an article by contributing opinion writer Margaret Renkl that beautifully expresses some of the equilibrating changes that come in late adulthood. The piece is framed as “The Gift of Menopause”— no doubt a truthful reflection of the author’s subjective experience, but menopause probably has less to do with it than she thinks. The emotional changes which Renkl describes are typical for men and women alike; as far as I know, there are no big gender differences. Our values and brains change with age, in many ways for the better. I am experiencing some of these changes myself, and as far as I know I’m not menopausal!

Be that as it may, Renkl’s observations are right on target—and track closely with what research shows about emotional changes that come with aging…

Less regret and social competitiveness: “It’s easier now to shrug off failure. It’s easier to shrug off most other things, too: missed opportunities, the unwarranted anger of others, fear of looking like a fool. A person who is not afraid of looking like a fool gets to do a lot more dancing.”

More focus on what matters most: “Life is full of obligations that can’t be shirked, but always there are ‘obligations’ I’m not obliged to do. No, I don’t want to sit on that panel. No, I don’t want to attend that fund-raiser. No, I don’t want to go to that party. The days are running out, faster and faster, and I have learned that every yes I say to something I don’t want to do inevitably means saying no to something that matters to me far more — time with my family, time with my friends, time in the woods, time with a book.”

Less volatility, more loving connection: “The pyrotechnics of youth may be gone, but I have learned that there’s no aphrodisiac like long love, like the feeling of knowing and being known, of belonging to a beloved’s body as fully as you belong to your own.”

Prioritizing loving relationships over climbing the greasy social pole, worrying less about others’ judgments, experiencing less regret — all are good for wellbeing and can more than offset the physical losses that come with aging. I heard these themes again and again in my interviews, and they show up consistently in research by Laura Carstensen and others. The notion that aging is a process of loss, decline, and sad relinquishment is a myth. Aging brings emotional benefits all its own, and you don’t need menopause to reap them.