‘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.

‘Recreating happiness is as simple as lighting four candles’

One of the best perks of writing a book about happiness in midlife in beyond is hearing how people live the patterns which researchers are documenting in data. A wonderful sample is this little photo essay, “Recreating Happiness” by my friend Myles. Now in his late fifties, having fulfilled his responsibilities as a parent and caregiver, he recently moved with his wife from the DC suburbs to the countryside of Virginia. “Our acre hilltop opens up to a full sky of bright sun and twinkling stars,” writes Myles.

With lovely photos and sweet, simple storytelling, Myles captures some of the changes which make gratitude and satisfaction easier to come by (other things being equal) in later adulthood. He has simplified his life. Focused his job on what he does best and cares most about. Brought his lifestyle into better harmony with his values. Deepened his appreciation of simple things and just being on the planet. I enjoyed this and wanted to share it.

“At the end of a year, recreating happiness is as simple as lighting four candles for the holidays, taking the time to watch twirling wooden angels, listening to twinkling glass bells . . .”

‘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.