‘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.

‘Approaching 84 is one of my happiest periods’

J. in Ohio provides a welcome example of the most surprising, and also the most robust, of the findings I report in The Happiness Curve: in late adulthood, the aging process helps us feel contentment. She writes:

Thank you for the very thought-provoking insights of The Happiness Curve: Why Life Gets Better After 50. It certainly helps me understand the unexplained gloom that engulfed me in my forties. But as I approach my 84th birthday, it is equally irrational that I should be experiencing one of the happiest periods of my life. Even my doctor seems amazed that I’m not depressed. I’ve been a widow for fifteen years, have had more than my share of medical issues, have long been retired from a satisfying career as a university professor, have given up volunteer jobs and international travels that enriched retirement. But living in an independent living apartment in a retirement community I’m not alone in finding that time flies by as I participate in a variety of activities from going out to dinner to concerts and theater. I have a wide variety of friends to share a meal with or invite for ‘Happy Hour’ on my balcony over a wooded ravine. Until he died a year ago, I even had a totally unexpected romantic relationship with a kindred spirit here. My own ‘happiness curve’ is higher than it was at sixty or seventy. It has me wondering what’s next.

J. goes on to say that the kind of positivity she is experiencing deserves more attention:

From my perspective your book demands a sequel about ‘happiness’ in old age. … My feelings are not universal but they are far more common than books by “experts” and interactions with others from physicians to family members leads one to expect. Part of it appears to be one’s experiences in adapting to change, how many times and how successfully you’ve had to cope with both pleasant and difficult changes. Part of it would seem to be participating in opportunities that make you feel needed and appreciated. I serve as webmaster for our resident website and share a ‘Great Courses’ lecture series that I purchased with an enthusiastic group of 15 to 20 residents. Both of these give me a feeling of contributing to my community that has always been important to me.

J. is clearly surprised to find herself experiencing so much contentment, despite having many reasons to expect herself to feel unhappy. Meanwhile, she is finding particular satisfaction in some group activities which, to her younger self, might have seemed pleasant but unimportant.

Together, her responses are good illustrations of how changes in our brains and our expectations join forces to help us toward contentment in late adulthood. Our brains become more focused on the positive, finding additional meaning and reward in simple—yet profound—acts of interpersonal connection. Because the stereotype of old age is one of loss, decline, and sadness, we get the further boost of a pleasant surprise.

As always, your mileage may vary. Nothing is guaranteed. But J.’s experience is common—and way under-recognized. She is right to say that the reality of happy aging deserves far more study and attention than it receives!

‘It has always been hard for me to ask for help’

K., age 50, says he is “second-guessing my worth in my relationships and job,” even though he has achieved his goals and more:

I’ve done everything that I set out to do from becoming a Creative Director for a advertising agency and winning awards. I designed my own home and cottage. Remarried to a beautiful woman who is kind and caring. There isn’t anything that I haven’t done that I set my mind too. As with other people you’ve interviewed I should feel fortunate and grateful. Yes grateful, but I can’t.

I’ve dealt with a slight depression since my thirties and chalked up all of these feelings through the years to just that, depression. But you’ve given me hope that I’m not alone in this world with my feelings. That there is something causing my dissatisfaction and I’m not going insane. In other words I’m not BROKEN.

As I stated earlier, I’m lucky to have a great wife that listens to me, but I know it’s wearing on her and I don’t have a lot of resources where I live. It has always been hard for me to ask for any kind of help as it has always been a form of weakness in my up bringing. But I am going to reach out to a complete stranger, you. Are there exercises that you know of that can help me to train my mind to be more grateful and not so self-judging of myself or afraid of change? Anything that you would suggest would greatly be appreciated.

What K describe sounds like me in my forties, perhaps somewhat more severe. Chapter 8 of the book has recommendations, including the things I wish I had known and done.

K hints at the shame that makes it so hard for high-achievers to be open even with loved ones about midlife discontent. He seems to be talking to his wife, a good start (I didn’t really talk to anyone). Isolation is the enemy here.

He also alludes to training his mind, an insightful concept. For those experiencing intrusive thoughts of worthlessness and self-recrimination, as I did, cognitive therapy can be valuable, because it can train us to interrupt the self-critical monologue and take back some control over the situation. Most modern therapists know the techniques.

That is one of several reasons to consider counseling. Another is that a good counselor will have seen midlife malaise before and can distinguish it from classic chronic depression. K’s history of “slight depression” suggests he may have elements of both. Trying to sort out these things by ourselves is, for most of us, just too darn difficult. This is why God made professionals.

And don’t underestimate the possibilities of coaching, which can be done via Skype if resources are thin locally. Coaches are trained to help us align our lives with our values, a forward-looking, goal-oriented approach that can be well suited to a go-getter.

Oh, and remember: though everyone’s individual mileage will vary, odds are that for K, at age 50, time is on his side.

‘Where does individual agency fit in?’

David C. asks:

Nice piece and tracks with experience: rough 40s and now happier in early 50s. But here’s the wrinkle: I’m happier (I think) because I tackled some major issues in my life. I changed careers, changed relationships, and moved to a different city. Your article suggests we’re often unhappy in mid life for no good reason. But I know quite a few people who get stuck and need to get unstuck to be happier. I was one of them. Waiting to age into greater happiness wouldn’t have worked. I needed to take action. Where does individual agency fit in with your analysis?

There’s an old witticism: just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you. Relatedly: just because you’re at the bottom of the happiness curve doesn’t mean you don’t need change in your life.

This is one of the hardest perplexities of the curve. Age can reduce midlife contentment, but so can other things. And more than one thing is always going on. Your contentment will depend on your emotional setpoint (i.e., your personality), your life circumstances (job, marriage, health, kids), the choices you make (lifestyle, romance, hobbies), and age.

So, if you are feeling restless or bored at work, is that midlife playing its tricks, or do you really need change? Here’s the important but disappointing answer: could be one or the other or a combination, and there is no bright-line, prefabricated way to tell. Most of us are just not very good at attributing the causes of our discontentment, and even in principle sorting and separating them is difficult.

That may be an unsatisfying answer in principle, but it is an important cautionary note in practice. The advice it leads to is not: never make a change. It is: proceed with caution. Try to work on the variables sequentially rather than throwing all the cards into the air. Consult with family, friends, and trusted advisers in making decisions. Have a plan B, and a plan C. Seek change that stems logically from your life choices and builds upon them.

Change is not your enemy at midlife. But impulsiveness often is. If managed well, midlife restlessness can be a doorway to renewal. If managed poorly, it can be a doorway to, well, midlife crisis.

(More on this in Chapter 8 of the book.)