Beyond the Midlife Crisis

“We need to cherish aging as a resource instead of deploring it as a loss.” Our interview with Jonathan Rauch.

Mockingbird / 12.7.21

The following is a shorter version of an interview published in the new edition of The Mockingbird, now available to pre-order.

Maybe there’s a Wikipedia page for everything, but one dedicated to “midlife crisis films” still seems weirdly specific, no? Weirder still, it’s a long list that includes some actual masterpieces, like Birdman, Sideways, and This Is 40; there’s also the Disney-Pixar classic The Incredibles. The midlife crisis, it turns out, is ripe for dramatization—and laughs. Recall that in The Incredibles, 40-year-old Bob Parr, former superhero, exhibits all the usual symptoms: general despair, a paunchy belly, an obsession with “being undervalued.” Though relatable, his conflict also seems essentially silly. (Indeed, he is a cartoon.)

The term “midlife crisis” is itself barbed, designating what can often be a painful life-phase as chucklesome. When it comes to pain, a sense of humor can help—sometimes—but no one wants to be the butt of a joke so frequently laughed at that it has its own Wikipedia page.

Such chagrin was felt acutely by the journalist Jonathan Rauch as he aged into a phase that he has become careful not to call a “crisis.” After all, it wasn’t a crisis but “a long, slow march through a fog.” He was what he calls a “textbook case” of the U-shaped “happiness curve,” which traces life-satisfaction as it bottoms out in middle-age. But in this case, what goes down must come up—that’s the good news about the U. In his early fifties, contrary to his own expectations, the fog began to lift. And as it turns out, Rauch wasn’t alone.

This is the subject of his 2019 book, The Happiness Curve: Why Life Gets Better After 50. The author of several books, Rauch is a National Magazine Award winner who contributes regularly to the Atlantic. His writing on the happiness curve is foremost a word of grace. Though midlife can be, for many, very difficult, he assures us that it is also a time of positive change. You begin to value relationships and compassion above status and acclaim; oftentimes, you emerge from the trough with more wisdom and kindness than you entered it.

Certainly all of these traits were obvious in our interview with Jonathan, who was thoughtful and gracious throughout. Below, he discusses the research behind the happiness curve and, perhaps more importantly, his tips for dealing with midlife malaise. In The Incredibles, Bob copes by losing weight, driving a new car, acquiring new clothes, and lying to his family about all of his emotions; here Rauch explains why these go-tos might not quite do the trick. He also talks about what’s missing from popular midlife narratives—and why what we have often seen as a crisis is instead cause for hope.

Mockingbird

What inspired your book, The Happiness Curve?

Jonathan Rauch

Well, in my late thirties, I began feeling a kind of malaise. I would wake up with feelings of self-deprecation—that I’d wasted my life, that I should be doing something different, something better. But I also knew that was crazy, because I was a high-achiever who had actually exceeded what I hoped to do in life. And I continued exceeding personal goals and, by 45 or so, had won the biggest award in magazine journalism. Yet throughout that time, my sense of disappointment with myself only increased.

I was self-aware enough to know that what was going on was not right. I began to be unhappy about being unhappy—a second-order problem. I thought maybe I’d become some sort of malcontent who was just ungrateful.

And then around the time I turned 50, I really did experience some major setbacks: both of my parents died, and I tried to start a business that didn’t work out. Oddly, at that same time, this sense of disappointment, of dissatisfaction, began to diminish.

That’s when I stumbled into a colleague at Brookings who was working on this research—still fairly new—about the U-shaped happiness curve. I realized that a lot of people had gone through what I had gone through. It was a eureka moment. And I decided the world needed to know about it.

M

Could you talk a little more about that research? Because it’s still pretty cutting-edge, right?

JR

Yeah, and there are some people who still dispute that there is a U-shape. But there’s so much good data on it from around the world.

The research story begins in the 1970s, with an economist by the name of Easterlin who starts studying happiness, because that’s an important factor in economics. If you want to know how well-off people are, you want to find out if they’re satisfied with their lives. Easterlin writes a pioneering article, and then in the 90s, other economists start getting involved with this.

Now, life satisfaction is not the same as your mood. It doesn’t measure whether you feel stress or anxiety; it doesn’t measure how many times you smiled today. It measures: Do you feel satisfied with your life as a whole? Which is a very different question and—it turns out—correlates much better with other indicators of wellbeing.

And these researchers start looking at health, marital status, education, employment, type of employment, family—everything like that is in this data. They’re looking for what matters and what doesn’t, and then they say, what the heck, let’s just strip out everything. Let’s say a human being has nothing going on in their life. Presumably we should not see a pattern with happiness, but oddly, there is a pattern, and it’s an age-related pattern. This U-shape pops out independent of other things going on in life, which is telling you that aging itself seems to have an effect on unhappiness—and it’s not what you’d expect, which is, you know, that you start out happy and then you age and become unhappy. You’d expect only a declining slope. But it’s a U-shape. It bottoms out in the forties, typically mid-to-late forties.

Economists start to see this again and again. They say, maybe this is something important, but they don’t know what to do with it; they’re not psychologists after all. Then the same curve is discovered in chimps and orangutans. And then the pattern is found in more and more countries, and in the 2000s people start realizing, wait a minute, this could be really important. Maybe there’s an inherent aging effect on life satisfaction.

It’s important to emphasize that the U-curve is never the only thing going on—but it is one thing going on. On a personal level, it’s not going to dominate your life. It’s going to be affected by other things—you know, a cancer diagnosis or a Nobel prize. But it’s there in the background, and we should know about it.

And what it tells us is that, other things being equal, it’s harder to be satisfied in midlife than it is in youth or late adulthood. And you’ll really notice if you don’t have a lot of other countervailing variables going on.

M

At what point in a person’s life does the U start to change direction, and trend back upward?

JR

I noticed the change around the age of 50. By age 53 or 54, I was certain that the fog was lifting. That’s right in tune with data, which suggests that in developed countries age 47 or so is the statistical average bottom.

Now, of course, that says nothing about individual cases, whether an individual would even experience or notice this trough in midlife. It’s a statistical average. But for me, it was dead-on.

M

I think that whenever we’re faced with a problem, we want a quick solution. But a huge part of this research is that this “trough” can’t necessarily be fixed, at least not quickly. As you describe it, the U-curve is deeply embedded—I mean, biologically. In the book, you describe it as an undercurrent that’s pulling on you. Which is a really useful image. It’s this slow trend that’s not necessarily fixable with, say, medication.

JR

And you wouldn’t even want to fix it.

M

Why do you say that?

JR

Well, we know much more about the “what” than the “why,” because the “what”—the phenomenon—just falls out of the statistics, and there it is. The “why” is a lot more speculative. But my interpretation is that the U-curve portrays a transition—and it’s a difficult transition. But it’s also a worthwhile transition. There’s a big payoff on the other side.

One thing that comes out of all kinds of data again and again is that once you get past midlife, the aging process helps you to be happy. That undertow pulls in your favor. Now, it doesn’t compensate for, obviously, illness, or losing your faculties, but it does provide an emotional buffer, right through extreme old age.

And that completely contravenes the standard story. We say that aging is a process of emotional decline and despair. But the U-curve suggests the opposite is true.

Contrary to the stereotype, older people are more inclined to look on the bright side. Our brains are actually more responsive to positive than negative things, relative to younger people. We experience less stress in a given situation. Less emotional extremes and volatility. We increasingly value relationships, people, community, giving back, helping others—those changing priorities enhance life satisfaction.

M

You’ve talked about midlife as a “transition”—what’s transitioning? What’s happening with a person at the bottom of the U?

JR

As I see it, there are three interlocking factors.

The first is the hardest to explain, because it’s really weird—though, I think, very interesting. That is, realism. When we’re young, we’re not very realistic. When you’re 20, you think that if you have that relationship, and you get your first house, and you get that good job by the age of, I don’t know, 30, then you’ll be all set up, and you’ll be satisfied. Well, that’s not how it works. Say you get those things. And then you need the next thing. You compare yourself with others, and you see someone else is doing even better. What you didn’t realize is, the goalposts would keep moving. When you’re 25, and you don’t feel satisfied, you just assume, well, next year will be different, but 20 years after consistently achieving and consistently feeling disappointed, you become gloomy about the future, because you think, oh my God, I’m just never going to be happy. This is pointless. Life is pointless.

And that culminates around the mid-40s. But something else is going on parallel to it, which is that we’re gradually becoming more realistic. We begin to realize that that set of goals isn’t as fulfilling as we expected, and we become more realistic about how happy and satisfied we’re going to be. Perversely, becoming more realistic makes it easier for us to feel satisfied because we’ve now said, “Well, maybe my expectations were unrealistic.” So that’s the first thing that’s going on.

The second is revaluation. As we age, we tend to focus less on ambition, social achievement, social competition, and we realize life is getting shorter, and we tend to focus more on human relationships. Well, it turns out that focusing on your community—on the people you care most about—is not a trickster. It actually does create a lasting sense of satisfaction. And this feels like relinquishing a burden. We become more about others, and more about savoring the moment we’re in. And that’s very rewarding, emotionally and spiritually.

The third thing that’s happening is rewiring. Which is to say, our brains change. And I alluded to this earlier, but you can look at people’s brains in an sMRI machine and show them happy faces and sad faces and stuff like that. Older brains are more responsive to positive stimuli compared to younger brains.

The stereotype is that old people are cranky and negative. That’s not true, even though the stereotypes themselves can lead to depression and dissatisfaction. But generally older brains have what some people call all-wheel drive, which means that we may lose cognitive sharpness in some areas of the brain, but that the brain compensates by engaging other parts. And there’s even a possibility that all-wheel drive actually increases the sense of balance and stability in life.

So if you put all three things together, the downward spiral of self-fulfilling disappointment starts to turn into an upward spiral of self-fulfilling satisfaction.

M

You write that, as people age, and their values shift, oftentimes what happens is people become more compassionate. And they become wiser. But it’s my observation that we don’t trust the elderly in that regard anymore. Maybe it was once thought that the elderly are wise, but now we venerate youth. We look to the young, up-and-coming stars for guidance and insight. And the elderly—they’re, like, outdated.

Do you see that? What’s your feeling about that?

JR

It’s absolutely true. And it’s a problem, is my feeling about that.

Aging does not automatically make anyone wise. Wisdom is scarce and precious at any age. But older people do have a leg up when it comes to wisdom. 

And wisdom is not the same thing as knowledge, skill, experience, or intelligence; it’s its own thing. Wisdom has to do with being able to transcend yourself and your immediate needs and interests, to see the world around you in a more detached, level-headed way; and then to help yourself and the people around you navigate complicated social terrain—reducing conflict, for example, or figuring out how to make a sensible plan. Wisdom is not only good for the people who have it; it’s transmitted to everyone around.

Ageism is rampant in America. And in the world for that matter, and it starts very young. There’ve been studies that find that grade-schoolers exhibit bias against older people. Everywhere you look, the story is, oh, growing old, that’s terrible. I wish I didn’t have to do that.

As you say, youth is venerated. But not just youth. We also tell a story that midlife should be a time when we’re kings of the universe, and that old age will be a time of decline. And so if you’re in middle age, you think, if I’m not happy now, I never will be. Well, no wonder you’re unhappy.

Ageism should be fought as hard as any other form of bigotry. It should not be the case that people who are older are condescended to, viewed as less capable. It should not be harder to get a job because you’re in your fifties or sixties, because employers look at you and say, well, I want someone young and energetic, someone who’s more creative. It’s not the case that age brings a dearth of creativity or entrepreneurship. Last time I looked at the numbers, the age bracket that was second highest in business startups was people in their fifties.

Ageism is almost universal in Western culture. But not in history. As you alluded to, other societies and time periods have viewed aging as a much more positive thing. And that view is much more in tune with the actual science.

We need to cherish aging as a resource instead of deploring it as a loss.

M

This book came out several years ago now, and I’m wondering—as you’ve aged a few years—have your thoughts on this developed? Are there any footnotes that you would add or new revelations you’ve encountered?

JR

Just that in my personal life, the trend has continued. I have found it easier to feel satisfied. I’m no longer thinking every day about what I have not accomplished. I’m now 61, and I realize I have 10 or 15 productive years left, if I’m lucky. So I’m focusing more on the things that really matter.

By age 55, I was pretty sure I was out of the woods in terms of the voices of disappointment in my head. And that’s continued to be the case. These days I almost never actually have stray thoughts about how poorly I’m doing compared to other people or where I should be. It’s much easier to savor where I am.

So in my personal life—no big change or revelation. 

But in terms of the research there’s been further confirmation of the U-curve. Danny Blanchflower, who’s one of the main researchers on this, has published additional evidence, which affirms the phenomenon.

But there’s one thought I would leave you with. To me, in some ways it’s the most important message of the book, which is that Americans talk right now as if everything is disappointing and life is bad. And we need to understand that as a society—not just America, but Western societies generally—we’re getting what I think is the greatest single gift in the entire history of humanity, except maybe medical care. That’s the gift of 10, 15, sometimes 20 years of additional life in the most satisfying and pro-social part of life: late-adulthood.

We’re talking about a world in which people well into their eighties will be healthy enough to work, to contribute, to mentor, to coach. We’re getting a period of fantastic personal growth and development, right at the time in life when we’re best able to exploit it.

This is an incredible thing when you think about it. In many cases, people in history didn’t live long enough to experience this upturn in life satisfaction. So the challenge is to accept this gift, not to throw it away with age discrimination or by forcing people to retire or leave the workforce because supposedly there’s no role for them in their community. 

We need to accept this gift. Because the fundamental story here is very, very good news.

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