From Chapter 1: The Voyage of Life

Karl is forty-five years old. He is a successful professional with a nonprofit organization in a major American city. He has a Ph.D., two kids, and an okay, though not perfect, marriage. He is friendly, personable, approachable. Mostly, he is pleased with the way his life has turned out. Middle height, brown hair, not someone you would notice on the street, except maybe for his partiality to skinny-brim fedoras. A nice guy.

Like a lot of people, he got off to an exciting start in his twenties. Finished graduate school. Moved to New York City, a whirlwind for a Midwestern boy. Wild, free, energetic are words he uses to recall that period. “Staying out all night. Getting laid left and right.”

His thirties brought responsibility, then predictability. Graduate school ended, the search for a job began; he split painfully with a bohemian, fascinating, mercurial girlfriend. “It was the end of an era.” His next girlfriend was more sober, solid. At age thirty-three, Karl had a good job at a government agency; at thirty-four, he married; at thirty-six, they had their first child, and a second followed when he was thirty-nine. After his twenties, responsibility was a jolt, but he adjusted well: “For a long time I embraced it. It was kind of fun feeling like a grown-up, doing the things I was supposed to do.”

But then the complexion of his life began to change. Not the external circumstances: everything was going well. Something else seemed wrong. That story about being a grown-up, hitting all the marks: “After a while it ceases to be very persuasive, and you begin to say, ‘Oh, man, all this, it’s fuckin’ work.’”

Karl didn’t have time for a midlife crisis; by the age of forty he had two young kids and a brand-new baby. “The circumstances sort of pushed off whatever reckoning I’d have to do.” But only temporarily. “It felt like my life was for the most part either going to a job where I was increasingly unsatisfied, or it was going home and changing diapers and doing more work.” He applied for higher-up, managerial jobs. Then he switched jobs altogether, leaving the government to launch a new project at a nonprofit. Giving up tenure at one of the world’s few really secure employers was a risk, but he felt he needed change. “It’s helped a bit. But quite frankly I think what I’d really love to do is take off to someplace in Europe for a while by myself.” He won’t run away, of course; he’s not the type. “It’s been more of a grabbing freedom at the margins.”

Karl isn’t depressed, at least not in any clinical or medical sense. He is a vibrant, fully functional individual who is, in many ways that count, living his dream. No, not depressed: dissatisfied. And dissatisfied about being dissatisfied. And, he says, scared.

For this book, I have given scores of people a questionnaire about their satisfaction in life, both in the present and at earlier ages. I ask them to rate their life satisfaction in each decade of life on a scale of zero to ten, and I also ask them for a few words or phrases to describe each decade. Karl describes his forties with the words confused, searching, scared.

I ask him: “Why scared?” He pauses, draws breath. What he’s going through makes no sense. If his life were rotten, he would understand. But he has the things he wanted. He has more than he wanted, or more than he thought he wanted. “Am I losing my mind? How am I going to get out of this? The feeling of being lost, for a type-A, overtly successful, highly intelligent human being—to find yourself completely at sea, and not knowing where port is, and whether you’re going to get there…” He trails off.

“Am I hungry? No. I have fine clothes on my back; a beautiful office; way more freedom than almost anyone who has a job has. Beautiful home. Good health. So what the hell am I complaining about?

In the sentence that beings, “I’m dissatisfied with my life right now because,” there is nothing after the because.

* * *

This book is about new light being cast on happiness by the dismal science, economics. It is about the frequently perverse behavior of life satisfaction, which has less to do with our material circumstances and accomplishments than we imagine. It is about the serendipity that led maverick economists to discover that age, independently of other things going on, makes contentment harder to come by in midlife. It is about the slow-motion emotional reboot that makes the years after midlife surprisingly satisfying, and why evolution might wire us for a reboot. It is about the dawn of a whole new stage of adult development which is already starting to reshape the way we think about retirement, education, and human potential.

Along the way, I will introduce a young economist who discovered a negative feedback loop that manufactures midlife unhappiness without apparent cause. I’ll introduce psychologists and neuroscientists who are bringing to light the surprising payoffs, personal and social, awaiting on the far side of the slump. I’ll introduce a psychiatrist and a sociologist and others who are building a new science of wisdom and showing how aging equips us to be happier and kinder, even as our bodies get frailer. I’ll introduce social thinkers and reformers who are exploring and mapping a whole new stage of adult development.

If what those and other researchers are learning is correct, some adjustments are in order. We need to understand why a lot of what we believe about aging and happiness is wrong. We need to understand why midlife dissatisfaction is, for the large majority of people, not a “crisis,” but a natural and healthy transition. With that understanding, we can become smarter about coping with the happiness curve, in ways which I’ll illustrate. Although we can’t think our way around the trough, we can think our way through it.

We can help others through it, too. I spent years exploring the science of the happiness curve and the evidence on age and happiness, but I did not understand the story until I realized that it is not a story about me. Or about you. It is about us. The curve seems to be imprinted on us as a way to repurpose us for a changing role in society as we age, a role that is less about ambition and competition, and more about connection and compassion.

How to cope with the happiness curve is also a social story, because coping is not something we can do very well alone, in the privacy of our heads. We need society’s help. Society needs to reeducate itself about middle age and old age, abandoning clichés about red sports car and sad, cranky decrepitude. It needs to offer support and outreach rather than shame and isolation to those who are in the midlife trough.

If you are in the trough, or know someone who is, I have no magic cures (there are none), but I do have some practical suggestions, which you’ll find in the last couple of chapters. I also have some heartening news:

First, midlife slump (not “crisis”!) is completely normal and natural. Like teething or adolescence, it is a healthy if sometimes painful transition, and it serves a purpose by equipping you for a new stage of life. You may feel dissatisfied, but you don’t need to feel too worried about feeling dissatisfied.

Second, the post-midlife upturn is no mere transient change in mood: it is a change in our values and sources of satisfaction, a change in who we are. It often brings unexpected contentment that extends into old age and, yes, even into frailty and illness.

Third, by extending our life spans, modern medicine and public health have already added more than a decade to the upturn, and they will add more years in the future. We are in the process of adding perhaps two decades to the most satisfying and pro-social period of life. Some sociologists call this new stage of life encore adulthood. Whatever you call it, it is a gift the likes of which mankind has never known before.

Understanding and exploiting the gift require rethinking patterns of life that our parents and grandparents (and their parents and grandparents) took for granted and built into their worlds, and into ours. Fortunately the knowledge we need is advancing quickly. It begins with the perverse logic, or illogic, of human happiness.