Like Frank Sinatra sang, “The best is yet to come.” Author and journalist Jonathan Rauch agrees, and he has science to back him up.
In his book, “The Happiness Curve,” Rauch says new research has found people tend to hit their midlife slump in their 40s, but will almost always be happier as they age. Seems counterintuitive, perhaps, but it makes sense as people’s values and the circumstances in their life change.
Not everyone feels the manifestation of happiness in their old age. There are instances when bad things do occur — illness, lost jobs or forced retirement and general ageism toward them. Plus, older people tend to feel lonely more of the time.
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But there’s hope — and people shouldn’t give up when they start to feel down about their lives in middle age. Rauch spoke with MarketWatch about the “happiness curve,” and what to do.
MarketWatch: How would you define the happiness curve?
Jonathan Rauch: The happiness curve is how aging, independent of other things, affect your happiness and it is U-shaped. It turns out the aging process drags your happiness down through your 40s, bottoms out around 50, and then aging increases your happiness for the rest of your life.
Marke tWatch: Why is that?
Rauch: The science behind this is still not clear. It is a new discovery. It happens in chimps and orangutans so it is fundamental in primates. The best conjecture is that it is because of a change in our values and our brains. It seems like we start out wired for social competition, we’re ambitious, but our ambition is a trickster. It is disappointing because it never lets you feel satisfied and by midlife we feel disappointed. We accomplish so much but there’s no sense of fulfillment. Meanwhile, as we age, our values change. We get older and we get more interested in social connections instead of competition. That evolution is a way of keeping us useful, to keep us connected with children, grandchildren, the community and tribe. I should add that social connection is a much more fulfilling ambition than competition. That’s why we tend to have more fulfillment than other things but in between there is a nasty transition where you’re disappointed with how happy you are and gloomy about the future. And it seems like it will never end.
MarketWatch: Is that where the midlife crisis happens?
Rauch: I call it a midlife transition. In the vast majority of people it is not a crisis, it is gradual and it is perfectly normal. Most people just get on with their lives. It can become a crisis but that’s usually because people make mistakes in this period, but that’s preventable.
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MarketWatch: How is the happiness curve reflected in work and family and social life, at least in your 40s and 50s?
Rauch: So in my life, with my experience, I had malaise I could not account for in my 40s. I felt trapped and restless and unfulfilled, even though I was meeting all of my goals. I was tempted to walk away from my career just to shake it up but fortunately I didn’t because I knew what was going on was not rational. So pretty much I got on with my life. From the inside, it was a rough period because I lost my self image as a healthy grateful satisfied person, as in I am not just a gloomy, unhappy soul and that was really unpleasant. I think it made me harder to have as a husband and almost affected my work. For other people, I think it certainly affects their work and career because this is a value transition. They want change in their work lives and employers have to work with that. It affects personal lives because guess what, the period of the happiness curve tends to be when they are taking care of aging parents and kids, usually teenage kids, so they have a lot of other stresses and now you’re adding age-related unhappiness and that can be really rough.
MarketWatch: How can people overcome it?
Rauch: I didn’t do a very good job. I got one thing right, though, I waited it out. I did nothing radical. So tip No. 1 is that time is on your side. It is like good investing advice. Sit on your portfolio. Don’t fiddle with it. So be patient. I was a patient investor. The second thing, change can be necessary at any point in life, including midlife, but it is a tricky time so avoid impulsive, disruptive change. Change your life, absolutely, go back to school, start a business, but do it in a logical way that builds on your skills, relationships, your experiences. Don’t try to throw the whole pack of cards in the air because it probably won’t solve the problem if the problem is age. Third, I wish I knew this one but the science wasn’t ready, normalize it. A big part of the problem was I thought there was something wrong with me. I knew I wasn’t depressed because I didn’t have depressive symptoms but I thought this was not who I am and I got alarmed, and that’s upsetting. Teenagers have a rough time but we all know that’s part of the transition. This is normal, and there is a pay off.
MarketWatch: What should people expect when they do approach big changes later in life, like retirement?
Rauch: Emotionally, they should know on average — all individuals will vary and depends on what’s going — but the peak of life isn’t until the seventh decade, so in your 60s, and often later, so the first time you’re depressed because you’re 50 and you think the best part is behind you, you are exactly wrong. The best part is yet to come. That’s what to expect emotionally. Older people have better emotional regulation, they experience less stress and regret in any situation, they have a lot of social wisdom that helps them. They’re more positive about life, their brains change that make that true, believe it or not. So emotionally, good things are coming if you’re dissatisfied with real life. What about career and retirement? We have an outdated social model. Education is in one big lump until age 20 roughly, work the next four decades, then you work really hard at that time, then retirement where you do nothing all day, and then you die. And that is not appropriate because people now in their 60s and 70s and often 80s are vibrant and rigorous. It is the most satisfying time. It is when you want to give back in society. The whole idea that what we’re supposed to do is go off to the pasture is wrong for more and more people, and that’s starting to change. That means pensions and education and corporations will also have to change the stereotypes about late adulthood. It is a gift if we can only grasp it.
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MarketWatch: What would you say are some of the myths associated with aging?
Rauch: There are so many myths. Old people are depressed. False. Old people are bad at learning new things and skills. False. Old people are not creative or innovative. False. Did you know people age 55 to 65 do more startups every year than people 25 to 35? Myth: Old people are not productive and drag others down. Fact: They’re more productive and because of social skills make others more productive. Myth: They’re grouchy. Actually, they experience less regret and more positivity. (Facebook FB, -0.14% chief executive officer) Mark Zuckerberg once said “young people are just smarter.” Wrong, Mark. He backed away from that later but we knew he meant it.
MarketWatch: What else did you find important from the research?
Rauch: A big goal of my book is that it is a bad idea to get isolated and ashamed if you’re having a slump in midlife. That made it a lot worse for me. I was ashamed because when you’re 45, you’re supposed to be the master of the universe. You’re afraid family will get afraid and panic, that your friends will make fun of you like “when will you get your sports car?” That’s like being closeted if you’re gay. That makes it worse. So we need to find support and coaching, good counseling, good friendship. There is nothing to be ashamed of. Chimpanzees get it, too and we need to do a better job of supporting our friends and family in this situation. So enough with the sports car jokes.
MarketWatch: How can people help each other during these times?
Rauch: Everyone should be aware of the happiness curve. Everyone won’t have a midlife slump, it depends on individual encounters of life, but we all bump into the situation in ourselves or others at some point. And we should treat it like we treat adolescence. Many people have a great time and we need to make sure there is support and friendship and give the opportunities and guidance. They’re going to need to so they don’t feel abandoned or alone.
(This interview has been edited and condensed for style and space.)