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‘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.)

“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.