‘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.)

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