Long after the thrill
Of living is gone
Jack and Diane- John Mellencamp
As much as I loathe this aging thing, I'm beginning to recognize that I am now a healthier person in terms of self-worth and knowing who I am and where I fit in the world. That’s been a good trade-off for the wrinkles.
Many of the people I see in therapy are in their 40’s.
And man, they can’t get no satisfaction.
And I can relate! What is it about middle-age that causes this? There are some obvious candidates. A lot of people are taking care of older parents as well as younger children. Health and energy are often declining, but conversely, it’s a little early to think about retirement.
Psychologists and doctors and men with red sports cars have long debated the existence of the mid-life crisis, and, really, the jury is still out on this one. But there DOES appear to be some evidence for something called the U-Shaped Life Satisfaction Curve.- Observe
In investigating this idea, I didn’t simply cherry-pick a single graph. Jonathon Rauch wrote an entire book on the subject called, “The Happiness Curve: Why Life Gets Better After Midlife.”
In this book, he does a thorough examination of the U-Shaped Life Satisfaction Curve, and digs into the research that seems to suggest a dip in happiness into the 40’s and then a significant upswing.
Why would this be??
In the interest of full disclosure, this isn’t merely a research question for me. I know the malaise, the boredom, and the disconnection that comes with this time of life, and I want to figure this shit out as well.
Many people Rauch interviewed for his book talked about how they “SHOULD” be happy. They’ve got more money now, they’ve advanced in their careers, and have put a lot of those manic sorts of stressors from early adulthood behind them. They SHOULD be happy.
So why aren’t they?
Rauch examines a happiness equation described as H=S + C +V +T
“H” is happiness. “S” is your emotional set point, which describes where your sort of default happiness setting lies. “V” described factors under your control, and “T” is time’s influence on life satisfaction.
And therein lies the rub. The way we look at time. People in their 40’s tend to look back at their past and think of all the good things that DIDN’T happen for them, and look into the future and see all the bad things that MIGHT happen to them.
It doesn’t seem entirely fair.
And before you think it is only humans that tie themselves into these middle-aged knots, consider the following fact. Even CHIMPANZEES seem to go through this same sort of funk in the middle of their lives.
At this point, the four of you that are still reading may be saying, “Are you really saying that Chimpanzees and Apes have mid-life crises’?
Yes. I’m really saying that. Read here if you'd like to look at the evidence.
Another contributing factor is something called “affective forecasting.” It's this thing we do where we look into the future and predict how we’re going to feel about things. It turns out we kind of suck at it. Although we THINK it’s going to be awful getting older and dealing with sickness and so forth, the truth is, humans mostly just adjust to things and return to their baseline functioning. Remember our happiness set points? That’s what this is all about.
But in examining the U-Shaped Curve, the news is not all bad. That curve takes a sharp left turn at some point, and happiness really seems to rise from there.
For one thing, our emotional regulation begins to improve. As my grandfather used to say, "Don’t sweat the petty things, and don’t pet the sweaty things.” We seem to “get” this a lot more as we get older.
We also seem to seek opportunities to take some of the things we have learned and pay it forward. Erik Erikson called the conflict in midlife age “generativity versus stagnation.”
In other words, we either get stuck and unsure about what to do next, or put the wisdom we’ve accumulated towards the service of others. Psychologist Dan McAdams called this the “redemptive sequence.” Sure we’ve made mistakes, but there’s still some time to do some good. Much of the upswing of the curve is about this giving, connection, and redemption.
Rauch also closes the book expelling that one of the reasons for the upswing in the curve can be summed up in three simple words. Gratitude comes easier. Sure everything didn’t work out exactly as we planned, but we begin to be more thankful for the things that we do have. Therein lies another large piece of the puzzle.
As for me? One of my favorite songs growing up was “Touch of Grey” by the Grateful Dead, a band I embraced in my own (decades long) wayward youth. It celebrates the wisdom and resilience of aging, and the lines “I will get by," and “I will survive” became a mantra for Deadheads young and old.
When I was 16, I knew every word to the song, and would belt out the lyrics,
“Oh well a touch of Grey
Kind of suits you anyway’
It had little relevance to my life at the time. It was still fun though.
But now? Sometimes I look at the sink, and wonder if that stray hair is actually brown or grey. But really it doesn’t matter.
Cause maybe, just maybe.
A touch of Grey,
Kind of suits me anyway...