If you imagine lifetime happiness to have the shape of a letter U, Tracy and I are blogging to you from the bottom. According to recent research, young people are happy, old people are happy, but those in the middle are in a valley of despair.
Hello up there!
Luckily for us, according to recent research, after 50, things start to look up.
In recent years, happiness researchers have confirmed the existence of the midlife crisis beyond popular myth, and they have developed theories for why our contentment with life follows a “U-curve”, bottoming out in our 40s and picking up again in our 50s. This dip in happiness, the so-called midlife crisis, often has to do with our immersion in professional life and a preoccupation with material wealth.
A flagship study, completed in 2011 by Stanford University psychologist Laura Carstensen, explains what changes as we age:
“‘As people age and time horizons grow shorter, people invest in what is most important, typically meaningful relationships, and derive increasingly greater satisfaction from these investments.’ Midlife is, for many people, a time of recalibration, when they begin to evaluate their lives less in terms of social competition and more in terms of social connectedness.”
There’s a good piece in the Economist which examines the causes of this phenomena. See Age and Happiness: The U Bend of Life.
What’s it like here in the happiness trough? Well, for me, I’m just less cheerful than usual. I’ve been attributing it to a bad year in terms of death–I lost my mother-in-law, my father-in-law, my dog and my mother’s dog–and the stresses and strains that come with parenting teenage humans. But maybe there’s more to it than that. Certainly, it’s a time of thinking “what next?” What will this second half of my career look like? What will it be like once all the teens have left the nest? Mostly, I’m enthusiastic about what’s ahead but there are days when it all seems a bit much. (And then cycling/Aikido/CrossFit/running all help!)
I was fascinated to read that humans aren’t the only primates to have the U: The Real Roots of Midlife Crisis
A lot of eyebrows went up when Oswald and four other scholars, including two primatologists, found a U-shaped curve in chimpanzees’ and orangutans’ state of mind over time. Zookeepers, researchers, and other animal caretakers filled out a questionnaire rating the well-being of their primate charges (more than 500 captive chimps and orangutans in Australia, Canada, Japan, Singapore, and the United States). The apes’ well-being bottomed out at ages comparable, in people, to between 45 and 50. “Our results,” the authors concluded in a 2012 paper, “imply that human wellbeing’s curved shape is not uniquely human and that, although it may be partly explained by aspects of human life and society, its origins may lie partly in the biology we share with closely related great apes.”