This post is inspired by an article (actually the cover story) in The Atlantic magazine, entitled ‘The Real Roots of Midlife Crisis.” It’s a misleading title, because the article in fact devotes quite a bit of emphasis to deconstructing the entire idea of midlife crisis, focusing on what social scientists increasingly see as a “Happiness U Curve.”
When plotted on a graph in which the X axis is the level of self-reported life satisfaction and the Y axis is age, the curve looks like a cross-section of a bowl, with satisfaction higher in the late teens and twenties, gradually declining through the thirties and hitting a low point in the forties. Somewhat surprisingly then, satisfaction begins to increase through the fifties and sixties and is actually highest when people hit their seventies, until serious health problems multiply and begin to significantly impair physical and mental activity. This pattern is seen across a wide variety of cultures and geography, and is even purported to hold true for apes (their “life satisfaction” being measured by zookeepers).
There are a number of factors that contribute to the shape of the curve; here are some of them:.
1) The unlimited time horizons of youth shorten as people age into their forties and fifties; they realize that time is not unlimited, and so they tend to adopt more realistic goals. They also tend to become more involved with ongoing activities and experiences that bring tangible and enduring satisfaction (such as membership in groups and pursuit of hobbies) rather than the acquisition of material objects that provide a short-term “fix.”
2) Spirituality increases with age. This phenomenon is due to a greater sense of mortality, and a greater interest in the “meaning of life.” Greater emphasis on spirituality is an important contributor to finding a sense of peace and contentment with life.
3) Perhaps related to evolutionary biology, younger people tend to be more competitive, spending a great deal of mental and emotional energy comparing themselves with peers. This tendency to compare generally tapers off when people hit their late forties and early fifties. Why? It may relate to a kind of mental exhaustion and a realization that there will always be someone who is richer, smarter, fitter, better looking, or generally further advanced.
4) Older people tend to be less inclined to be upset about things they cannot change. This is an important component of wisdom – I frequently teach or remind clients about the Serenity Prayer: “Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage (or strength) to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” Again, some form of mental exhaustion may contribute to this wisdom, as the realization that effort after unsuccesful effort to influence unchangeable outcomes only leads to unhappiness.
5) Older people tend to be more open with others about the difficulties and disappointments that they’ve faced in life – an openess that helps them to realize that they are not alone in these experiences. That realization is comforting and can help put the inevitable low points of life in perspective.
6) As one ages one certainly sees examples of others leading lives that are deserving of envy. But most people see at least as many lives that turn out not so well, and are often marred by tragedy. In the relatively evolved person’s mind, then, gratitude builds and satisfaction with the life that they’re living increases.
7) Young people’s time horizon is almost unlimited, and so they see enormous opportunities in the future. Often these perceived opportunities are chimeras of wishful thinking, rosily colored by ignorance of how the world actually works and by not having experienced the kinds of setbacks more familiar to older people (e.g. the death of loved ones, personal illness/injury, career disappointment). As a result, younger people consistently overestimate their expected future happiness, while older people consistently underestimate it. Thus things tend to turn out worse than expected for the young and better than expected for the old, and as those realizations sink in the curve measuring life satisfaction bends towards that bowl shape.
“Midlife Crisis,” then, is a point of inflection, where the accumulated impact of the above hits people, generally in their 40s. The great news is that, for most people, life will be experienced as getting better as they age. Hard to imagine for the young, but true.