As suspected, the cover story for November’s Atlantic Monthly, Jonathan Rauch’s “The Real Roots of Midlife Crisis”, contains more than a handful of relevant tidbits. The article is concerned less with the particulars of sports cars and second marriages and more with the “U-Curve of Happiness”–the phenomenon reported across countries, cultures and even species(!) of self-reported wellbeing dipping significantly in one’s 40s, and rising in one’s 50s and 60s, often peaking during one’s 70s. Rauch makes a terrific guide through all the research and theorizing, along the way telling us his own story of mid-life discontent.

There are plenty of things we could highlight–e.g. the near-complete lack of compassion or even curiosity the phenomenon elicits in bystanders (and the effect that has on those experiencing “crisis”), the burgeoning science of “wisdom”, etc–but what struck me most was the role of expectation, ht TB:

Flame1Not everyone goes through the U-curve. But many people do, and I did. In my 40s, I experienced a lot of success, objectively speaking. I was in a stable and happy relationship; I was healthy; I was financially secure, with a good career and marvelous colleagues; I published a book, wrote for top outlets, won a big journalism prize. If you had described my own career to me as someone else’s, or for that matter if you had offered it to me when I was just out of college, I would have said, “Wow, I want that!” Yet morning after morning (mornings were the worst), I would wake up feeling disappointed, my head buzzing with obsessive thoughts about my failures. I had accomplished too little professionally, had let life pass me by, needed some nameless kind of change or escape…

Midlife is, for many people, a time of recalibration, when [people] begin to evaluate their lives less in terms of social competition and more in terms of social connectedness.In my 40s, I found I was obsessively comparing my life with other people’s: scoring and judging myself, and counting up the ways in which I had fallen behind in a race. Where was my best seller? My literary masterpiece? Barack Obama was younger than I, and look where he was! In my 50s, like my friend K., I find myself more inclined to prize and enjoy people and relationships, which mercifully seem to be pushing the unwinnable status competition into the background. Also, Carstensen told me, “when the future becomes less distant, more constrained, people focus on the present, and we think that’s better for emotional experience. The goals that are chronically activated in old age are ones about meaning and savoring and living for the moment.” These are exactly the changes that K. and others in my own informal research sample reported.

In my own case, however, what seems most relevant is a change frequently described both in popular lore and in the research literature: for some reason, I became more accepting of my limitations. “Goals, because they’re set in temporal context, change systematically with age,” Carstensen says. “As people perceive the future as increasingly constrained, they set goals that are more realistic and easy to pursue.” For me, the expectation of scaling ever greater heights has faded, and with it my sense of disappointment and failure.

An analysis by the Brookings scholars Carol Graham and Milena Nikolova, drawing on Gallup polls, shows a clear relationship between age and well-being in the United States. Respondents rated their life satisfaction relative to the “best possible life” for them, with 0 being worst and 10 being best.

An analysis by the Brookings scholars Carol Graham and Milena Nikolova, drawing on Gallup polls, shows a clear relationship between age and well-being in the United States. Respondents rated their life satisfaction relative to the “best possible life” for them, with 0 being worst and 10 being best.

The idea that the expectations gap closes with age has recently received some empirical backing, in the form of fascinating findings by Hannes Schwandt, a young economist at Princeton University’s Center for Health and Wellbeing. He used a German longitudinal survey, with data from 1991 to 2004, that, unusually, asked people about both their current life satisfaction and their expected satisfaction five years hence. That allowed him to compare expectations with subsequent reality for the same individuals over time. To his own surprise, he found the same result regardless of respondents’ economic status, generation, and even whether they lived in western or eastern Germany (two very different cultures): younger people consistently and markedly overestimated how satisfied they would be five years later, while older people underestimated future satisfaction.

So youth is a period of perpetual disappointment [Ed note: Paging McDavid!], and older adulthood is a period of pleasant surprise. What’s more, Schwandt found that in between those two periods, during middle age, people experienced a sort of double whammy: satisfaction with life was declining, but expectations were also by then declining (in fact, they were declining even faster than satisfaction itself). In other words, middle-aged people tend to feel both disappointed and pessimistic, a recipe for misery. Eventually, however, expectations stop declining. They settle at a lower level than in youth, and reality begins exceeding them. Surprises turn predominantly positive, and life satisfaction swings upward. And the crossover, in Schwandt’s sample, happened about where you would expect: in the 50s.

It would appear, in other words, that regardless of where one falls on the success spectrum, AA is right about “expectation being a planned disappointment/resentment”, even when our expectations/aspirations are reasonable or laudable. They must run their course before happiness or gratitude is likely to re-enter the picture–and that is something that happens to us rather than by us. Translated into Mockingparlance, mid-life is, generally speaking, the peak of (experienced) little-l law and its fruit, when the “unwinnable status competition” finally becomes painful enough, or its futility obvious enough, to be abandoned. The sailing on the other side may not be wholly smooth–far from it in fact–but certain illusions have lost their potency and/or sting, and life, to paraphrase Rauch, can become, or start to become, less “a challenge to overcome than an adventure to be enjoyed.”

Perhaps this is part of what Gerhard Forde meant when he wrote that, “To make room for grace alone we are forced to push man down to absolutely the lowest possible position on the ladder – if not off it altogether.” Substitute “we” for “life”, or better yet, “God”, and all of a sudden, the slings and arrows of mid-life take on a more hopeful arc. If only they didn’t still hurt so bad…