The Happiness Curve: Why Life Gets Better After 50 by Jonathan Rauch
Thanks to modern medicine, the lifespan of the average adult has increased by more than a decade and will probably expand even more in years to come. If that isn’t enough of a silver lining, journalist Jonathan Rauch offers even more good news about aging in his book “The Happiness Curve: Why Life Gets Better After 50.”
The optimistic, breezy title could easily be dismissed as wishful thinking. However, Rauch’s rosy projection is based less on new-age optimism than a review of a series of multi-country, big-data studies on happiness conducted over the past few decades.
The findings by scholars from a range of disciplines consistently show that life satisfaction is U-shaped, with contentment high in the 20s, plunging at mid-age and taking a turn for the better after 50.
The ample scholarship on the “happiness curve” debunks many long-standing beliefs about aging and happiness and shows that contrary to being over the hill, people over 50 are generally happier than they were during their 30s and 40s.
…The strength of the book, then, is less the personal anecdotes than what appears to be overwhelming evidence of a happiness curve after 50 that could inspire a societal reassessment of later-life planning. “We are in the process of adding perhaps two decades to the most satisfying and pro-social period of life,” Rauch writes. “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.”
Rauch argues that outdated social conventions and assumptions need to be revised to create a “U-friendly environment,” one that reflects these insights into the aging process. “By telling them that their best years are behind them at age fifty, we make them gloomy about the future,” Rauch says. “In all of those ways, by telling the wrong story about adult development, we bait and set the midlife trap.”
In a youth-obsessed culture, it may be difficult to convince some that life gets better after 50. But by supplanting dated cliches with compelling scholarship, Rauch offers a fresh and reassuring vision of aging that supersedes superficial fixations.
Jonathan Rauch, author of The Happiness Curve, was relieved to find an explanation for his gloom – academics say adulthood happiness is U-shaped
…Forget the saying that life begins at 40 – it’s 50 we should be looking toward.
He has written a book, The Happiness Curve: Why Life Gets Better After 50 (out in the US 1 May and UK 14 June), which includes personal stories, the latest data and illuminating interviews with economists, psychologists and neuroscientists.
“The most surprising thing is that age tends to work in favour of happiness, other things being equal,” he tells the Guardian. “The most strange thing is that midlife slump is often about nothing.”
Hold off on splashing out on that flashy sports car or embarking on an affair though. It is not the same as a midlife crisis, which according to the stereotype demands an urgent, rash response. The slump isn’t caused by anything, according to Rauch. It is a natural transition, simply due to the passing of time.
“It’s a self-eating spiral of discontent,” he says. “It’s not because there’s something wrong with your life, or your marriage, or your mind, or your mental health.”
Not everyone will experience a sunnier outlook in their 50s and beyond, Rauch acknowledges, because factors such as divorce, unemployment or illness can counter this. But, other things being equal, the U-curve holds.
Rauch, an author and journalist, adds: “Those most likely to notice the arrow of time are the people without a lot of other change or difficulty in their life. Things seem to be going well for them, they’re achieving their goals, and nothing much has changed. They think, ‘Why do I feel less satisfied than I expected to? Why is this going on year after year? Why does it seem to be getting worse and not better? There must be something wrong with my life.’
“Well, there’s nothing wrong with your life, you’re just feeling the effects of time which others who may have more turbulent lives may not notice as much.”
…Not all economists and psychologists agree. Economists Paul Frijters and Tony Beatton factored in the possibility that those who become happier in the studies are the same people who are more content when they start out. This can help them achieve greater career or relationship success, which leads to more happiness. Correcting for this effect, the U-shape disappears.
Rauch, however, believes he is a textbook example of the U-curve.
…Rauch puts forward various explanations for why we feel happier in our 50s and beyond.
Research shows that older people feel less stress and regret, dwell less on negative information and are better able to regulate their emotions. Nor is status competition as important.
Rauch says: “We seem to be wired to seek maximum status when we are young – the ambition to be on top of the world, to have the big job, to have the extraordinary marriage to the wonderful person or lots of money. Or some form of greatness, which is what I dreamed of in my 20s, to write some book that would outdo Shakespeare.”
We are over-optimistic in youth about how much satisfaction we will get out of our future successes, he believes.
“As we get into our 30s and 40s, we’ve achieved most of those things, 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 hear people say, ‘I don’t feel the need to check those boxes any more’, or ‘I don’t care that much what other people think’.”
Older people feel relieved of a burden that makes it easier to savour other simpler pursuits such as spending time with grandchildren, a hobby or volunteer work.
…Rauch has a few tips for relieving midlife malaise, such as talking to friends about it and understanding it’s normal. It is also helpful to stop comparing yourself to others, he says.
By Marci Alboher, Next Avenue Contributor
The midlife doldrums are real. But fear not; they don’t last forever. Take it from Jonathan Rauch, a journalist and author who has systematically studied every bit of research on happiness across the life course. The results of his quest are the subject of his smart new book, The Happiness Curve, Why Life Gets Better After 50.
Rauch, who is about to turn 58, was sparked on his journey by something that overcame him in his forties — a general sense of malaise that didn’t match the positive place he was in his life as a successful writer, with a generally satisfying life. In his book, he refers to “an accumulated drizzle of disappointment which can become self-sustaining but is quite unlike clinical depression or anxiety.”
Investigating the Midlife Malaise
Rauch didn’t feel he needed medical attention, yet the malaise nagged at him. And as he looked his peer group, he noticed a lot of others dealing with the same feeling. So he decided to investigate the reason behind this seemingly ubiquitous dip. And that’s when Rauch, now a senior fellow at The Brookings Institution and a contributing editor of The Atlantic, discovered what psychologists call the “U-shaped happiness curve” — the idea that youth and old age are times of relative happiness, but there is a big drop in happiness at midlife before a turnaround that generally kicks in at around 50.
… The secret to these happier years, Rauch learned, is that we tend to shift away from competition and ambition and towards connection and compassion.
Rauch has become convinced that you don’t need to go it alone to navigate this part of life. He’s an evangelist for “institutions and social norms that ease the way” like the encore transition programs sprouting up at universities and through organizations like the Transition Network, a group for women over 50 thinking about what’s next. (Full disclosure: I’m a VP at Encore.org, the nonprofit which serves as an innovation hub for these kinds of programs).
….Rauch: My father used to say old age isn’t for sissies and he dreaded it. But this book brought wonderful good news and personal relief at several levels — knowing that there is nothing wrong or unhealthy with feeling dissatisfaction, regret and disappointment at midlife.
And another even greater sense of relief is knowing that so much emotional reward lies ahead in life.
Most people think that by my age now, the best part of life is over. But finding this research opens a whole new world open. I feel like Balboa coming over the hill and seeing the Pacific Ocean.
…Alboher: How does the happiness curve affect how older people respond to outside stressors and serious problems in the world? Is there a risk that we may tune out as we age?
Rauch: I didn’t see anything like that. The evidence I saw — findings of psychologists like Laura Carstensen [of the Stanford Center on Longevity] — doesn’t show that older people are desensitized to bad news or stimuli or that they are emotionally numb.
What it does suggest is that they are better at managing those emotional storms. They may be as severe, but they are less long-lasting and better controlled. It’s more like a modulation.