It’s no secret that midlife brings with it a fresh course of stresses and obstacles, all at a time when we’re supposed to be as grounded and emotionally and mentally stable as we’re ever going to get. After all, midlife is when the majority of us have met the relationship and career goals society has been dictating we reach over the last two decades, we’ve successfully reared children into young adulthood and beyond, and we probably are at our most fiscally comfortable.
And yet it’s also when we mistakenly take inventory of our lives and cast gratefulness to the side, asking ourselves, “I’ve dutifully checked off the standard societal life goals, so this must be the happiest I will ever be and feel, right?”
While midlife (and the stark realization of your impending mortality) may be leaving you constantly pondering angst-ridden questions like the above, the decades after are when it seems you actually get the answers. But fret not, because those answers are pretty darn good ones. And it’s no longer just your happy great-grandma that says so. It’s also science.
So what exactly is this emotional life cycle of youth, midlife and the decades beyond actually called, and what does the brain science behind them tell us about finding and living a joyful life of meaning?
It’s called the “Happiness Curve,” and it’s also the title of the new book The Happiness Curve: Why Life Gets Better After 50 by best-selling author Jonathan Rauch. In it, Rauch analyzes the brain science behind the life cycles we find ourselves swimming in and out of, and how and why some of those waters run deeper (and often sadder and less fulfilling to a certain extent) than others. He is quick to challenge the common notion that “midlife malaise,” which we all tend to succumb to at some point between the ages of 45 and 55, is not — and should not be called — a “midlife crisis.” Rather, we need to acknowledge it as a “midlife transition.”
“Midlife” transitions may look and feel different to everyone, and they’re also not to be confused with a true diagnosis of depression and/or anxiety by a clinician. Rauch explains that they’re more of a “gradual, slow, and persistent trough of middle age” that is more like a “long tolerable slump,” and is “typically about really nothing.” It is neither a crisis, nor a mental incapacitation. The good news is the pendulum of the malaise trough does indeed swing joyfully upward again, and somewhere after age 55, our brains have rewired themselves, so to speak — a metamorphosis not unlike adolescent brain development (just without the hormones, drama and acne).
Rauch explains in his book that this is all part of the natural aging process, helping to usher in what he refers to as “encore adulthood” — a term used to describe what generations ago would have been called “the golden years.” Now, thanks to medical advances and the fact we’re taking much better care of ourselves, those years extend well beyond the typical retirement age of 65. In other words, 80 is the new 65, and according to Rauch, those late decades are becoming the most “pro-social time of one’s life.”
But what mindsets are actually changing in our brains that facilitate the happiness curve, and why and how does it make us happier? First, it’s important to note that Rauch’s extensive analysis of life (not mood) satisfaction surveys of those over age 50 found that this important part of the aging process happens across all cultures, races and religions, and factors out such things as social class, income, education and other life characteristics we may associate with a higher level of life happiness or ease. In other words, there remains a common denominator of more and happier life satisfaction for everyone in their second half of life, regardless of bank account balances.
As far as how our life outlook and mental capacity change, Rauch explains that the positivity and more joyful outlook we will find ourselves gaining during our later years give “people emotional protection from the physical abilities they lose.” This means as we begin to experience the slowing down and eventual deterioration of our bodies, our minds don’t follow suit into a hole of despair. Rather, their wiring adjusts, making it easier to become more grateful about the things we have. When approaching the rat race of early middle age — where the U-curve slump really begins to take shape — our focus tends to solely be on status and ambition. Rauch terms this a “temporal trap.” It is one we don’t experience in our later years because our life focus takes a dramatic shift away from the “durable” and more into the “social.” He notes that as the U-curve starts its shift upward, we “age away from status and achievement,” and begin to switch our focus back to familial and community relationships. This provides much greater fulfillment and life satisfaction, and hence more happiness.
The book does more than succeed in explaining midlife malaise and the brain science behind it. It also provides a much-needed ray of sunlight and a generous helping of hope to those in midlife who are nervously questioning the potential quality of their later years. Rauch’s humorous and deeply personal tales of his own midlife slump (and his eventual swing out of it) are an encouragement to those of us smack-dab in the middle of the U-curve. The Happiness Curve: Why Life Gets Better After 50 is a must-read for midlifers.
Everyone needs a girlfriend!
Sign up to receive our free weekly newsletter every Thursday.