The Midlife Happiness U-Curve

The midlife crisis is a recent invention

Calin Stan, Unsplash

[Original post from Quarter Turn’s predecessor, You’re So Venn]

I am on the downward slide to the bottom of my “U.”

It’s a weird feeling to be 43 and in the stage broadly described as “midlife,” defined as people from age 40 to age 65. I don’t feel experienced enough to be in middle age; surely I should know more by now.

And apparently life has a U-shaped happiness curve, which gives me a lot to look forward to.

Dear scientists: there’s got to be a better way you can message this.

The happiness curve

People around the world experience a similar “happiness curve” over the course of their lifetimes: from youth, through the middle years, and then into their later years.

The shape of the curve resembles a “U,” with happiness being highest in youth and then again from age 65 onward.

Some people have a deeper dip in their curve, while others remain flatter, but the curve is universal: it happens to both women and men, married people or single, happens regardless of wealth, and includes people with and without children.

It happens all over the world, independent of country or culture.

It’s counterintuitive — growing up we tend to imagine that at every subsequent age we’ll be more informed, gradually more satisfied. As we achieve personal and professional success it feels only right that we should be increasingly happy.

But for many of us — we lucky ones who have not had to experience it much sooner — middle age will be the time when we begin to lose things: jobs in flux, loved ones in various stages of their own aging process, changing facets of our own health.

It makes sense that middle age would be the stage most likely to test our mettle. So it’s reassuring to know that a dip between the ages of 40–65 is normal. We’re not alone.

The view I prefer, though, is knowing that however much my U dips during the next 22 years, I am statistically likely at that point to be on my way to a happier state. Understanding there are no guarantees, statistically speaking at some point the only direction left should be up.

And that’s a reassuring thing.

We should tell people that more often, instead of perpetuating the idea of the midlife crisis.

The midlife crisis is a recent invention

The midlife crisis entered our world in the mid-1960’s.

That means it’s only as old as Apple Jacks and Honeycomb cereals, the board game “Operation,” Gatorade, Yoplait, SpaghettiOs and Kevlar (source: Wikipedia).

In a word, it’s young.

And then, in 1974, Gail Sheehy released her book, Passages: Predictable Crises of Adult Life. It included the example of a 40-year-old man going through midlife turmoil, and a stereotype was born. Heck, the whole idea of midlife crises only seemed to apply to men, for many years.

And while it’s gradually been disproven in favor of the more nuanced happiness curve — which is also more inclusive, let’s be honest — the term “midlife crisis” remains in our vocabulary.

Those of us now in various stages of midlife have grown up with it, seen it in movies, and read magazine covers about it in the grocery store checkout lines our whole lives.

And it just isn’t a thing.

Sure, some people experience crisis at middle age. People experience crisis at all ages. But there is no specific crisis that occurs simply because someone is middle-aged.

Unless it’s one of their own devising, since we’ve been conditioned to expect one. Similar to how, in the years since COVID, every cough or tickle in the throat has us wondering whether we have “it,” the whole idea of a midlife crisis can cause people to second guess their disappointment or unease, and ask themselves “what if I’m having a midlife crisis?”

As if we didn’t have enough existential questions already.

While our happiness curve is expected to dip, the good news is that there’s unlikely to be any crisis here unless it’s one of our own imagining.

Engage. Choose meaning.

So what can we do?

I think the answer is simple: we engage. We choose meaning.

Because whatever our age, we become the things we think about.

And while it’s presumptuous for me, at 43, to write about a life stage that includes people as much as 22 years my senior, I can say with confidence that when we engage and choose meaning it’s impossible to go too far off course.

Try the new hobby.

Volunteer. Read books. Exercise.

Create. Connect. Share.

Whatever meaning looks like for you, engage with the things that bring meaning to your life, and help you feel you’re adding meaning back to the world. Focus on the vision of you that you aspire to, and keep moving toward it.

These are all things recommended to lessen the impact of the U on midlife, and the irony is that they’re good advice — maybe the best advice — for any age.

Barbara Bradley Hagerty sums this up so well:

It turns out that finding a deeper purpose and pursuing it carries an unexpected bonus: It makes you robust. Dozens of new studies show that if you have a reason to get up in the morning, you will live longer, you will enjoy a happier old age, you will better retain your memory, and you will be more likely to not only survive the scary diagnosis but thrive. Purpose in life is more important than education or wealth in determining long-term health and happiness. It isn’t a panacea, but it’s awfully close.

Barbara Bradley Hagerty, Life Reimagined

Notice that she didn’t say “midlife” at any point in this passage.

Accepting that midlife is brought to me by the letter U

I’m fortunate that, while my last grandparent passed away in 2022 both my parents are here, and healthy, and I see them most weekends. I am healthy too, though post-COVID I still struggle to re-find the exercise routine I had before March of 2020. I can still get out and play soccer passingly well on Sundays with my old lady league (we’re all over 35).

And yet.

I have this sense of urgency I don’t recall feeling before. I’m more bothered by how creatively lazy I’ve been in the past — and am moved to do something about it. I feel a bigger sense of unmet potential than I felt at, say 35.

I accept that midlife may be brought to me by the letter U, but I refuse to take it sitting down.

And while I don’t know quite how I’ll accomplish it I intend to engage, and choose meaning, and to somehow make midlife my sweet spot.

U and all.

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