If you’re currently in your 40s, the prospect of living a lot longer may not excite you. Not that you’re fond of the alternative; it’s just that for many middle-aged people, it can be a tough time.
My fourth decade was by far my most successful. I made a lot of money, enjoyed recognition and praise for my work, and had a family that I cherished.
There was absolutely nothing wrong, and yet I wasn’t happy. It wasn’t absolute misery, but rather a persistent sense of discontent.
Despite all the things I had to be grateful for, I was dissatisfied, and couldn’t understand why.
The malaise of middle age
As is often the case, what I experienced was not unique to me. About 15 years ago, researchers found an unexpected pattern that has been consistent in countries and cultures around the world: the U-shaped happiness curve.
In the book The Happiness Curve, author Jonathan Rauch details how life satisfaction declines from our early 20s until we hit our 50s. During our 40s, things basically bottom out, even while we’re hitting highs in all the areas we would expect to bring us satisfaction.
If this sounds like you, you’re likely looking for the reason why you’re not happy. I know I did.
But don’t be surprised if, like me, you come up empty-handed. Just like Seinfeld was a show about nothing, your 40s are a period of unhappiness about nothing.
Is this a midlife crisis?
The concept of the midlife crisis was proposed by psychoanalyst Elliott Jaques back in 1965. Psychologists have never validated it, but the idea that midlife represented a “crisis point” caught on in popular culture.
The crisis rarely comes. Instead, you just feel vaguely unhappy.
One thing that adds to the discontent that forty-somethings feel is the idea that there’s nothing but the misery of aging ahead. Ironically, the slump not only ends around age 50, but life satisfaction keeps going up from there.
I mean, it really keeps going. A 2011 study led by the Stanford University psychologist Laura Carstensen concluded: “Contrary to the popular view that youth is the best time in life, the present findings suggest that the peak of emotional life may not occur until well into the seventh decade.”
So the first way to make it through the midlife slump is to simply know that it gets better, and carry on. In other words, don’t pull a Lester Burnham. Quitting your job on a whim or blowing your retirement savings on a muscle car is not a good look.
The tyranny of status and success
Being afflicted by this vague discontent at what may well be the high point of your career so far is more than just ironic. The very achievements and status that we thought would make our lives golden actually contribute to the malaise:
The reason is what researchers call the hedonic treadmill. To motivate us, youthful ambition makes us unrealistically optimistic about how much satisfaction success will bring. Later, when we meet a goal, our desire for status and success moves the goalposts. Despite our objective accomplishments, we are not as satisfied as we expected.
From there, we start to feel guilty. How dare we be unhappy when we have so much to be grateful for? This leads to even more dissatisfaction, and the malaise starts to self-compound.
If this is you, just take a step back and a deep breath. Once you understand that this is a common thing that happens to a lot of people — not just you — it takes the pressure off.
The upside of getting older
So what changes at 50? Well, it’s at this point in our lives that we stop being so concerned with status and external praise, and start doing what we really want, simply for the sake of doing it.
Rather than engaging in rash behavior in your 40s, it’s actually a good time to start thinking about what you really want to do with the rest of your life. Not what anyone else thinks you should do — what you want.
The fact that it took you 45-50 years to get to this point is not a bad thing. You’ve also been getting better the entire time. And now, you’re ready for the next phase:
In the US, studies find that people aged 55-65 are more likely to start companies than those aged 20-34, and that older workers are just as productive as younger ones (and increase the productivity of those they work with). But you would never guess this from the way we think and talk about aging.
Let others think what they want. What matters is that you know this slump is perfectly normal. Like Jules at the end of Pulp Fiction, you’re in a transitional period.
Your job is to simply stay the course for now. Take care of yourself. Get better at getting older.
Consider this as training for the next phase. And that’s when you get to kick ass and also feel great about it.
The Happiness Curve: Why Life Gets Better After 50 (Amazon Associates)