Life may begin at 40, but the fun really starts at 50. In the meantime, we all experience a self-eating spiral of discontent. It’s not the midlife crisis, though, but a natural stage of life and an essential one.
According to the award-winning journalist and researcher, Jonathan Rauch, life satisfaction falls for the first couple of decades of adulthood, hits bottom in the late 40s or early 50s, and then, until the very last years, increases with age. This U-shaped trajectory is what he calls “The Happiness Curve“.
First noticed in the 1990s, the happiness curve is only today coming into scientific focus and, as its implications emerge, it is revolutionising how we understand adult development. It’s nice to prove that your unhappiness is a “thing,” and not just something unique to you and your life.
“As we get into our 30s and 40s, we’ve achieved many things – Rauch writes in his book, The Happiness Curve (GreenTree) -, but we’re not wired to sit back and enjoy our status. The same ambition that made us status hungry makes us hungry for more status. We’re on the hedonic treadmill. We don’t feel the satisfaction we expected, so we think there’s something wrong with our lives. As we get older, our values change. You don’t feel the need to check those boxes any more and maybe you don’t care that much what other people think”.
We can’t get rid of our mid-life gloom, but we can mitigate its effects by understanding its perverse logic. The midlife malaise can indeed reboot our values and even our brains for a rebirth of gratitude. How? “By shifting priorities away from competition and toward compassion – says Rauch- you can equip yourself with new tools of wisdom and gratitude to head positively into your later years”. Most of all midlife is a journey we mustn’t walk alone, helping each other through the woods is the key.
“There’s a huge amount of untapped wisdom and potential to be unlocked. Because of the happiness curve – continued Rauch- people in their 50s or 60s are often in a position where they want to give back. They want to be mentors, they want to be volunteers and they want to work at not so difficult jobs which allow them to use their skills.”
So, if you’re dissatisfied, frustrated or downright miserable, cheer up. There’s apparently a cure for you. Even better, it will materialize automatically. Just sit and wait. The good news is the modern midlife moment is less of a crisis and more a time of reckoning, a period of reflection and personal growth.