Count Your Midlife Blessings (At Your Own Risk)

On Expectations, Gratitude, and Going to Church

David Zahl / 11.23.20

It’s not often that people my age ask me why they might want to go to church.

Perhaps this is because mid-life tends not to be a time when people are looking for one more thing to do. They’re definitely not looking for one more thing to feel bad about not doing. But occasionally, after a new acquaintance finds out that I work at a church, they express some curiosity.

Even if I suspect their interest is purely theoretical, accompanied by one of those semi-amused “I’ve never even considered going to church on a non-holiday Sunday” looks, I still try to take it seriously.

My chief pitch, especially if it’s a social situation where I don’t want to get into matters of belief (or absolution or transcendence …), has to do with gratitude. Church is a place, I say, where a person cultivates gratitude on a weekly basis. And who doesn’t want that?

Sunday mornings bring a mammoth perspective check, you might say. Your cares and concerns are placed in a context that’s much more expansive than that week’s headlines or your own “skull-sized kingdom.” And as you hear about the cares and concerns of others — who are just as heavy-laden as you, it turns out — entitlement has a way of fizzling. What’s more, you hear about death and are reminded of the gift that life is.

Churches that preach the Gospel go one further. They remind us of what God has done on our behalf, the forgiveness and mercy he offers at our point of undeserving and even unbelief. To which gratitude is the only sane response.

Gratitude is the closest emotional approximation of happiness, but it might also be the closest emotional approximation of faith. Which may be why I’m having trouble getting into the spirit of Thanksgiving this year. I’ve lost my chief engine of gratitude, which is church, but kept my chief engine of self-pity and envy, which is social media. Mid-life malaise isn’t helping, either.

In his fantastic book, The Happiness Curve, Jonathan Rauch explores why people in their 40s, across cultures and demographics, tend to be so unhappy. What he found has a lot to do with the relationship between gratitude and expectation.

However happy we may be at age 20, our expectations of future happiness tend to be pretty astronomical. As life fails to meet those expectations (supercharged in our context by Hollywood, etc.), our level of happiness declines. In our mid-40s, generally speaking, we reach an inflection point where our expectations have fallen so far that life starts to out-perform our forecasts.

To put it another way, if ages 20-45 bookend the process of becoming less grateful for the life you have, then ages 45-70 do the same for regaining that gratitude. When you feel like your best days are behind you, you’re more likely to be grateful for the good things that happen, simply because you no longer expect them to. Your entitlement has been, well, squeezed out of you.

What this means in practice, though, is that people in their 40s tend not to be super grateful for the lives they have — no matter how much good stuff is actually there. Instead they’re stuck in some form of midlife malaise (not crisis), which is the protracted experience of one’s expectations bottoming out.

This experience is actually more pronounced in those who cannot point to any single circumstance as lacking, i.e., folks who’ve achieved all those things they were told would bring happiness — house, spouse, kids, career, etc. However much emotional reward these things have brought (sometimes a lot!), it’s still nowhere near the satisfaction we thought/hoped/expected they would.

According to Rauch’s research, this creates a feedback loop in which dissatisfaction becomes one more thing to feel dissatisfied about — something that for obvious reasons no one wants to hear about. He writes:

Counting my blessings, as I did on the threshold of forty, was a worthy exercise morally; I’m glad I did it. But … I am no longer surprised that it didn’t help. Unknowingly, by trying to explain to myself why I ought to be more satisfied, I was giving myself more reason to dwell on the gap between how satisfied I felt and how satisfied I thought I should feel.

Is this a roundabout way of endorsing ingratitude and entitlement? Of course not; other people suffer our ingratitude, particularly those closest to us, who we blame for not fixing/completing/satisfying us. These feelings are painful, top to bottom. But perhaps Rauch’s analysis explains why reading an interview with Michael J. Fox about his (remarkable!) gratitude for the compromised life he leads may not produce the intended effect. Inspiring stories tend to operate as Law on the non-compromised, shameful as that may be.

I guess what I’m saying is that Thanksgiving in the time of COVID (or mid-life) has a Should attached to it and therefore the potential to bring a person down just as reliably as tryptophan. Oddly enough, that recognition makes this 40-something feel … grateful.

Not quite as grateful, though, as I felt after attending outdoor church yesterday, where I heard about the God who, at just the right time, died for the ungrateful. He should have done anything other than that. At the very least, he should have had the decency to stay in the grave, and allow that indictment of human misguidedness to stand for all time.

Thank God our expectations weren’t taken into consideration.


4 responses to “Count Your Midlife Blessings (At Your Own Risk)”

  1. Jeff Sackett says:

    This kicks.

  2. Carrie says:

    Very helpful to think about “chief engines” and what mine are. As one who is coming to terms with how self-pity has “been a driving force” in my life, (I know it has because I can spot it from others miles away) I can once again, give this character defect back to the Engineer, who makes all things new. Behind self-pity is pride (ouch) because “I deserve better”, He is “squeezing the entitlement out”of me.

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