‘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!

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