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.
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.