As the summer of 50 approaches, I’ve got lots of friends and family asking how I feel. The answer is, aside from coming out of the worst winter of my life which was a horrible combination of polar vortex and personal sadness, I’m feeling pretty darned good. (See Rough times, tough choices if you missed hearing about my very sad year.)
I’m by nature a relentless, unreasonable optimist. It’s just genetic luck of the draw. I know that. I don’t take any pride in it. I have friends and family who struggle with depression and I don’t think I’m any more virtuous than them. I’ve just inherited my mother’s sunny disposition. Though we have our bad days, we’re glass half full types.
So when I read this, it made me smile.
There’s something right I think about the idea that you can feel younger at 50 than you do at 40. At 40 you’re busy comparing yourself, if comparing is your thing, to 20 and 30 somethings. At 50, the idea is, you look at the 60 and 70 somethings and feel young. For example, 50 is a bunch of new firsts. First seniors discount, for example! Though I confess I’m always shocked when I see that.
At 50 you’re also on the upwards trajectory in terms of well-being and happiness.
Academic researchers who work on well-being refer to the U shaped pattern of well-being. The idea is, that on average, we hit a low our mid-to-late forties and after that things int better and better. See Is Well-being U-Shaped over the Life Cycle? by David G. Blanchflower, Andrew Oswald.
Recent research has argued that psychological well-being is U-shaped through the life cycle. The difficulty with such a claim is that there are likely to be omitted cohort effects (earlier generations may have been born in, say, particularly good or bad times). Hence the apparent U may be an artifact. Using data on approximately 500,000 Americans and Europeans, this paper designs a test that makes it possible to allow for different birth-cohorts. A robust U-shape of happiness in age is found. Ceteris paribus, well-being reaches a minimum, on both sides of the Atlantic, in people’s mid to late 40s.
Why are older people happier? Good question. See Why are older people happier? for some details.
Researchers, including the authors, have found that older people shown pictures of faces or situations tend to focus on and remember the happier ones more and the negative ones less. Other studies have discovered that as people age, they seek out situations that will lift their moods — for instance, pruning social circles of friends or acquaintances who might bring them down. Still other work finds that older adults learn to let go of loss and disappointment over unachieved goals, and hew their goals toward greater wellbeing.
What makes older people happy? Everyday experiences, it turns out. Read What Makes Older People Happy in the New York Times.
When we’re young and believe we have a long future ahead, the authors found, we prefer extraordinary experiences outside the realm of our day-to-day routines. But when we’re older and believe that our time is limited, we put more value on ordinary experiences, the stuff of which our daily lives are made.
Why? For young people trying to figure out who they want to become, extraordinary experiences help establish personal identities and are therefore prized, said Amit Bhattacharjee, the lead author of the study and a visiting assistant professor of marketing at Dartmouth College. As people become more settled, ordinary experiences become central to a sense of self and therefore more valued.
In my case I think it helps that I’ve also always liked older people. Even in my late teens and early twenties I thought older people seemed more balanced, less self-absorbed, more interesting than people my own age. My partner feels the same way. I once said I didn’t worry about getting older because he’d always liked older women. He laughed but teased that maybe he just liked women a different age than his own. Harumph.
Now, let me clarify. I’m not one of those people who feels older. I didn’t feel 30 when I was 18 or 50 when I was 25. I often feel 14 or 16. I have friends who have always seemed old and just grew into their personas. That seems to happen often to bearded, tweeded, pipe smoking male academics who look 50 from the time they’re 25. That’s not me.
I’m also excited at turning 50 because I feel like I am entering a new stage of my career. I became an Assistant Professor at 28, all going well, I think I’ll retire around 68 and so I’m just entering the second half of my working and writing life. I’m through being Department Chair and I’m back to a full time teaching and research career and I’m enjoying both lots. I have exciting new projects underway. See Feminist Philosophy Quarterly: coming soon! Exciting times ahead.
I’m an expert juggler. My daughter was born while I was in grad school and both boys pre-tenure. (This makes me unusual among women academics who mostly wait til after tenure to have kids.) The bonus is I have more free time and the prospect, for the first time, of a professional life mostly without the day to day demands of parenting. It’s not that teenagers don’t take time. They do. But they’re also now, but for one, legally adults. I can travel more and sometimes they don’t even notice.
I recently got a text message, “Hey, can you spot me a drive home from the Y?”
Me: “Um, I’m in California. I’ve been here for 3 days.”
Teen: “Guess, I’ll take the bus then. Oops.”
This beats the first email I ever received from a child when I was away at a conference. “Mum, Dad may say everything is fine but we’ve had pizza three nights in a row and the hamster died.”
The comic below and the Louis CK skit are my favourite “turning 40” funnies. There aren’t as many jokes about 50, I’m finding. Too serious. If you have a favourite, let me know.