“Are you happy?”
If you’re like most adults, your answer will probably depend on when you’re asked this question. Have you just spent time with people you enjoy? Are you sitting in traffic or coming down with another cold? Is the sun shining on a midwinter day?
While we tend to measure our happiness moment to moment, satisfaction and contentment run deeper—and lots of recent research has found that the older you get, the happier you are. Scientists sometimes refer to this as the U-shaped life-satisfaction curve, or the “happiness curve” for short.
Jonathan Rauch is a believer. A Brookings Institution senior fellow, he’s the author of a recent book called The Happiness Curve, subtitled Why Life Gets Better After 50. We’ve all heard about midlife crises, but Rauch says scientists are finding that the concept is mostly a cliché. What isreal is the prolonged slump many of us endure in our 40s, even if we seem to “have it all”: stable relationships, a rewarding career, a little money in the bank. At midlife, we are prone to plaintively ask (or maybe moan), “Is this all there is?”
It could be that we’re victims of high expectations. As children and teens, we’re encouraged to dream big. In our 20s and 30s, we experience freedom and our first tastes of success and romance. But by midlife, no matter how well we’re doing at work, someone else is doing better—at a time when many of us are raising teenagers, getting worried about aging parents, and seeing signs of our own mortality. Rauch uses a phrase that will resonate with Northwesterners: that life in one’s 40s can feel like “a drizzle of disappointment.”
Then unexpectedly, the clouds lift. By our 50s, 60s, and beyond, we’ve had a few more laps around the block and we’ve likely seen some serious losses. We’ve tasted the bitter, and we know how to savor the sweet. We care less about what other people think, and we know who and what matters most in life. As Rauch puts it in his book, “The passage of time, by itself, affects how satisfied and grateful we feel—or, more precisely, how easy it is to feel satisfied and grateful.”
Judy Kimmerer of Adult Care Resources in Seattle says this idea rings true for her and for most of the more than 200 people she’s helped over the past 20 years. Reflecting on her own upper middle-class childhood, Kimmerer says she had to adjust her own expectations in midlife. She and her husband had very little money and sometimes struggled to raise their two daughters. “We were living on a very thin edge,” she recalls. “There was joy with our children and our love for each other, but the reality of running out of money was awful.”
Eventually, though, she and her husband found ways to sustain themselves in careers they still enjoy: He’s an art teacher at a Montessori school and she provides both companionship and case management for seniors in transition. “Having hardship in your life prepares you for aging,” she says. Whatever we endure in midlife makes us stronger, whether it’s financial hardship, depression, or the loss of a loved one. By contrast, if you sailed through life without setbacks, you would have a rough time facing them for the first time in old age.
Rauch says the curve is “not an inevitability; it’s a tendency.” In his own research, he has found people whose lives look like rising lines—that instead of ever going downhill, things keep getting better.
Barbara Packard of Olympia is one of these people. As a young woman from Portland, she studied dance and art in New York City before spending a year abroad painting in Europe. She moved to Seattle, took a job at the University of Washington, and met the man she would marry, Bob Packard, on a Mountaineers Club hike. She was 39 when they wed on New Year’s Eve in 1966—and together, the couple hiked another 30 years.
If there was a low period, it came as Packard spent several years caring for her husband as he developed Alzheimer’s. “That was a challenge,” she says. “I wouldn’t call it a hard time because I was a willing caregiver, but it was demanding.” Yet it was an enriching time, too, as she made connections and built friendships that lasted long after Bob passed away. “So, I’d say there’s an upside to every downside.”
After Bob died, Barbara continued her art career and kept trying new things including Spanish and guitar lessons. For her 90th birthday party in 2017, she invited friends for a coffeehouse concert of songs she had written. She has recorded several CDs and plans to do another to mark her 95th birthday in 2022. “It’s an incentive to have a goal,” she says. “This is my form of keeping that carrot dangling.”
I ask Rauch whether the happiness curve might turn out to be a turn-of-the-millennium phenomenon. Many young adults have lower expectations than their parents did—so maybe their midlife trench won’t feel so deep. He says he hasn’t been asked that question, “so what I’m about to say is total guesswork. My guess is we won’t see the underlying phenomenon go away, but we may very well see changes in the trajectory and the shape of the curve.” It’s possible that if today’s young adults enter the U-curve with tempered optimism about their future happiness, they’ll experience less of the sense of disappointment that previous generations did. “But I don’t think midlife is ever going to be an easy time on average for most people,” he adds.
Rauch sees a need for greater connection between older adults who know life gets better and younger ones who might be in a slump. But for that to happen, he says, people need to stop being fearful of being judged for their mysterious feelings of midlife malaise—and their fear of getting older, for that matter, since so much of society still views aging as a process of decline. “It wouldn’t occur to most people to say to someone in their 60s or 70s, ‘Gee, how do I get where you are?’ We’re busy saying ‘How do I notget where you are?’ Mentoring across these age groups would make a huge difference, and I don’t think we’re seeing it yet.”
In the meantime, we can all model what it means to grow happier as we get older. We can show how trusting, supportive relationships bring great satisfaction, Rauch says. By curating strong social connections, “we invest in the people and things, but especially people, that you care most about and that care most for you.”
Rauch recalls a recent conversation he had on this topic with fellow writer Chip Conley, “and the way he puts it is we spend the first half of our life writing and the second half editing.” In other words, it’s never too late to have a happy ending—no matter where you currently sit on the life-satisfaction curve. With luck and with a little help from our friends, we can enjoy the entire journey.
Julie Fanselow is a writer living near Seattle and the author of Surely Joy: Reflections from a Simple, Beautiful Life. Read more from her at surelyjoy.blogspot.com.
More ways to build happiness
Want more tips on how to be happier? WeightWatchers.com recently featured this list of things to try.
Change your vocabulary
The more control you believe you have over your life, the happier and more optimistic you’ll feel, says Mary Ann Mercer, author of Spontaneous Optimism. For example, instead of saying “I’m so tired,” try saying, “I need to recharge.”
Stand up straight
Keep your chin up! Researchers have found that slouching while you walk can make you feel more depressed. Sitting upright is better than slumping in your chair, too.
One thing at a time
Multitasking increases the odds you’ll make a mistake. Rather than juggling items on your to-do list, tackle them one at a time.
Do good works
Helping others can make you feel good, too, so volunteer at the food bank, donate to your favorite charity, or bake cookies for your grandchild’s school.
A little movement goes a long way; you don’t need to run a 10K to benefit. Even just pacing while on the phone or fidgeting can count as activity.
Curb the social media
Studies have shown that frequent Facebook users can be less happy than those who spend less time on the site. Mercer says quality beats quantity when it comes to relationships, so log off and call a friend instead.
Read a real book
Curling up with your Kindle might seem like a better way to unwind before bed, studies find that people who use e-readers before bedtime had more trouble falling asleep, slept less deeply, and felt more tired the next day than those who read print books.
In the Northwestern winter, it can be hard to get even a few minutes of sunlight. But going outside even a short time is good for you. Mercer suggests taking a 10- to 15-minute walk each day—and leaving your phone in the house.
Find your purpose
A happy life and a meaningful one have a lot in common. Japanese researchers found that people who experience ikigai, a sense that life is worth living, lived longer lives than those without it. “People who feel really good about their lives, know what they want,” says Mercer. “They have a vision, and that makes them feel empowered.”