“Apparently, I am quite normal!”

Laura writes:

I will turn 50 next year.  I have spent the last five years struggling with and succumbing to all of the internal rumination you so accurately articulated, although mine did spiral down as deep as clinical depression. With the help of therapy and medication, and a huge boost of serendipity, I managed to pull out of the clinical depression by the summer of 2016.  But the deep malaise has persisted. I could find no answers or effective modalities to relieve it. This year, I decided I must be genetically or spiritually cursed and resigned myself to living the rest of my life in a perpetual dark night of the soul. From time to time, I would pray to the universe for something, anything, to help me find my way back to some sort of ‘normalcy.’

Your book told me I am not broken or fundamentally flawed. Apparently, I am quite normal!  And there is a light at the end of the tunnel and potential for maybe even experiencing more contentment, if not happiness, than I have ever known before I die. Just knowing that is a true possibility is like having a breeze hit my sail after years of no wind at all.

Comment: Knowing about the happiness curve is no cure-all. It will not banish depression, for example. But it is an important piece of the puzzle. Realizing that midlife dissatisfaction, in and of itself, is not a form of brokenness and is not a permanent condition can bring great relief.

This knowledge needs to become much more common!

“Maybe I need to create more goals”

An email from Nick:

I’m turning 38 at the end of May and have a great life. In the last 10 years, I’ve written down numerous goals and have checked them all off, surprising myself along the way. Yet I felt a malaise these past few months and I couldn’t identify it. I thought, “maybe I need to create more goals, new goals.” But nothing really comes to mind. And deep down I don’t believe doing so would alleviate how I feel.

What you talk about, regarding the curve, makes perfect sense, and has provided me with great relief.

Thank you for your work. It’s come at a perfect time in my life.

First comment: You’re welcome! I tried to write the book that I wish I could have read when I was turning 38 and felt exactly the same stirrings of unfounded dissatisfaction that Nick feels.

Second comment: Nick is an example of how just knowing about the U-shaped happiness curve can help allay its effects. Though there’s nothing wrong with setting and pursuing new goals, creating them artificially, and even achieving them, is unlikely to shake off the kind of dissatisfaction Nick seems to be feeling. His disappointment is caused by what he feels is his failure to appreciate his success—not by his failure to achieve success. Weirdly, setting and meeting new goals, while very possibly worthwhile in its own right (I’m not against ambition!), can compound his dissatisfaction by widening the gap between what he has accomplished and how he feels about his accomplishments.

That is the so-called negative feedback trap. It can lead to despair about ever being able to feel fulfilled.

In time it diminishes as age reorients us away from the status chase. Meanwhile, awareness of the trap gives Nick some leverage against it. Knowing that the cause of his dissatisfaction may be inside himself helps prevent wild goose chases and unnecessary self-blame.

“I wish I’d done these things all my life”

A reader, T., writes:

This past year, at 57, I’ve taken up learning to ride English style, learning to row (sculling and sweeps), and improving my archery skills in the back yard. I ride twice a week, and row at least 3 times a week. I wish I’d done these things all my life, and I am beyond grateful that I am getting to do them now.

Comment: Interviewing people for my book, I was struck by how many stories I heard like this one, of people in midlife and late adulthood discovering joy in new hobbies and pursuits. One woman was making jewelry; another was rescuing raptors.

Notice, though, what’s happening here reflects change in who we are, not just what we do. As we age, we gain capacity to find satisfaction in pursuits and relationships that might have seemed trivial or time-wasting to our younger, more ambitious, more status-oriented selves.

That’s part of why the relinquishment of social ambition in later adulthood—the chase for big achievements—does not seem like a loss or impoverishment. As we become more able to find hidden depths in simple things, we let go of the burden of grandiosity.

“I wish I’d done these things all my life,” says T. But chances are that if she had done the same things 25 years ago, they would have felt different. To some extent, she is experiencing the upside of aging.

“What am I missing?”