Middle-age discontent gives way to true happiness
THE MIDLIFE crisis is the butt of countless jokes but author Jonathan Rauch is on a mission to change our perceptions.
“The cliché is a balding man in a red convertible speeding along a motorway,” he says. “This has become the standard symbol of the materialism and selfindulgence that supposedly characterise middle-age discontent.”
Jonathan, 58, believes this is not only unhelpful but inaccurate. Rather than a crisis, middle age brings with it a “slump” – what he describes as: “A malaise or a sense of ennui, which is a vital part of accessing the joy of old age.
“Ageing is actually a good news story,” he says of the uplifting process known as the “U-shaped happiness curve”. After our brains are rewired in healthy middle age, we are in fact ready for the riches of contentment that lie beyond.
Researchers have found that while satisfaction with life drops in the late 30s and bottoms out in the late 40s it then rises steadily before reaching a peak around 70 and then levelling out.
Jonathan was 38 when he began to feel what he calls, “A nagging yet constant discontent”. He was a successful writer in a happy relationship but couldn’t work out why he didn’t feel happier.
He realised something was very wrong when he won one of the highest accolades in American journalism but was only fleetingly happy. “I wasn’t depressed but I knew this was irrational. It wasn’t a mood disorder but a contentment disorder.”
It was then he discovered new research on the happiness curve, which is the focus of his latest book. The curve refers to the U-shape on a graph that represents the relationship between life satisfaction and age.
One study of more than 300,000 Britons shows the bottom of the U, the point where most were dissatisfied, was 49. Anxiety and stress peaked at the same age.
But the bottom of the U, the author says, is a necessary period of realignment before we can move on to happiness in later years.
“The emotional reboot of midlife – and the changes in our brains that lead to a change in values, together with an increase in positivity and optimism in older generations – is a very widespread pattern,” says Jonathan, whose own ennui lifted when he was 50.
“I’ve definitely written a good news book.”
To order a copy of The Happiness Curve: Why Life Gets Better After Midlife by Jonathan Rauch (Green Tree, £18.99) call the Express Bookshop on 01872 562 310 or visit expressbookshop.co.uk
Jonathan Rauch – author
The happiness plan: Top tips to survive the slump
Here Jonathan, above, shares his exclusive advice on how we can all achieve happiness in middle age
LET YOURSELF EXPERIENCE IT
Accept that the only way out of the middle-aged malaise – an independent effect of ageing and not something you can stop – is to go through it.
It is a natural transition from one life stage to another, similar to adolescence. Trust that it will lead to a dramatic pay-off: real happiness.
REALISE IT’S GROWTH
Understand that going through a temporary downswing is a normal and healthy part of human development as our brains change and prepare us for the next phase.
LET GO OF SHAME Part of the problem for a high-achieving 45-year-old is knowing logically that everything is going well but being ashamed at not feeling happier. Accept you have midlife ennui. I resist the whole idea of a “crisis”, which suggests something sharp or pathological. Instead it is mild, persistent but can go on for years in the background.
REALIGN YOUR VALUES
As we age our brains change our priorities from competition and achievement to the desire to make meaningful connections with others.
Life coaching can help us create these new pathways, as can a good psychologist able to support the change without seeing it as something that needs medicating.
SHARE WITH FRIENDS
Invest in a strong network of friends and supporters. The love of our closest allies is a vital part of the support we need in middle age and it can go a long way toward providing stability and helping to prevent us making mistakes until the moment passes.
ACCEPT WHO YOU ARE
I went through a phase of making obsessive comparisons. If I saw someone doing something I would think: “Why am I not doing that?” I knew it was unhealthy so I taught myself to interrupt that cycle. I would jump in mentally and think: “No comparisons.”
This gave me some form of control but there are other ways to combat unhelpful internal dialogue such as meditation, mindfulness and listening to music.
STAY IN THE MOMENT
We look at middle age and we believe the best has passed. But this isn’t true and science has proved it.
Being preoccupied with the future as well as with the past is damaging. “How can I do a better job with my life right here in this moment?” is the only question you should be asking.
MAKE CONSIDERED DECISIONS
When you don’t feel good the temptation is to find something to blame and make a sudden change.
Some people walk away from good relationships in their midlife years but in my case I was tempted to walk away from my career.
At this point in our lives, sudden disruptive changes may seem like a good idea but they are seldom reasonable. The key is to step rather than leap.
We look at middle age and we believe the best has passed. But this isn’t true
Change might be necessary to reflect the way our values and brains are changing. However it should be well thought through and be built on the past
Change might be necessary to reflect the way our values and brains are changing. However it should be well thought through and be built on the past. Plan well: impulsivity is the enemy of middle age.
When you are close to giving up hope that life can be good again, it starts naturally to improve and time is on our side in this.
After the U-curve bends it works in your favour making you more resilient, wiser and happier.
At a time in the past when we would have been dead, humanity is now getting an additional decade or so more of life, when satisfaction is at its highest and we are focused on investing in core relationships and helping others.
You may have more physical problems but the older you get the more knowledge you have as well as the freedom to care about what matters most to you.
This is an incredible gift. As one of the experts in my book says: “It almost makes you want to grow old.”