I met Piedmonter Freda Zeitlow at a lovely event she organized last spring for a group of professional women. Over a delicious lunch, Freda gave a thought-provoking talk about happiness, specifically about the ‘U-curve’ theory of lifelong satisfaction.
The pattern, confirmed over the past decade in dozens of international studies, shows that most peoples’ happiness and life satisfaction over time follows a ‘U’ shaped curve. In childhood, people generally report being very happy, but happiness and contentment begin to fall in the teenage years. Happiness hits a low point somewhere in middle age, but begins to climb again in the last few decades of life. So a 65 year old might feel as happy as she was at 25, a 75 year old as joyful as a teenager. This U-shaped curve remains when you control for factors such as physical health, income, number of children, marital status, and education.
Naturally, as a mid-lifer surrounded by others of my general ilk, I’m very curious about when exactly the bottom of that ‘U’ occurs, and when things begin to look a little brighter. The research shows it varies by culture and gender. American women, for example, ‘bottom out’ at 45, while American men are at their lowest point at 49. It could be worse; things keep looking down for Germans until well into their 60s, while Russians don’t hit their lowest point until they are past 80.
This all rings true to me. I don’t have a single friend in his or her late 40s who hasn’t experienced some sort of ‘crisis,’ from the fairly harmless buy-a-red-sportscar genre to the heartbreaking I-don’t-know-if-I-want-to-be-married bombshells. We’re all angst-ridden to some extent, gloomy and questioning. Consumed by our failures, convinced we’ve made major mistakes, left important goals unfulfilled. More encouragingly, I’ve noticed that friends in their 50s and 60s report being more content and satisfied. They seem somehow more serene, more confident they’re on the right track.
As a life stage, midlife is every bit as tumultuous as puberty, albeit without the acne (thank goodness for small favors!). It reminds me in an exquisitely painful way of being a teenager – those years when I so often felt ugly, unlovable and emotionally unstable. Out of control. Alone. The advantage we mid-lifers have is that unlike our pubescent teens, we understand that we’re not going through this stage alone.
The best cures, then, for the restless bottom-of-the-U-curve mind are perspective and camaraderie. You’ll feel less out of control when you accept that the doldrums of midlife are normal, and have faith that they’re temporary. Talking with those at a similar stage and telling the truth about your own U-curve story can help everyone weather the inevitable slump of middle age.
If all else fails, as Freda noted at her lunchtime talk, the other advantage of midlife over puberty is the legal alcohol factor. If all else fails, we can be thankful for a handful of friends and a glass of wine or two (ok, maybe three) to help ride out the curve.