After the midlife crisis: Why your happy years start at 50by Donna Chisholm
Photography by Ken Downie
Is having a midlife crisis the gateway to increased contentment in later life? Donna Chisholm unpicks research around the happiness U-curve.
“You name the cliché – except divorce – and I have wandered down that path for an answer,” she says.
She’d been happily married for nearly 20 years and was comfortable with her decision not to have children. She regularly travelled overseas, co-owned an Auckland home and was in a sales leadership job in charge of 127 staff.
There was no obvious reason for her discontent – she acknowledges she is in many ways greatly privileged and has much to be grateful for.
“But I woke up one day and said, ‘I can’t do it.’ Something wasn’t right. I was crying into my porridge in the morning. I started to think, ‘What if this is my last chance to do something else with my life other than just be on a corporate ladder and sitting in meetings making decisions?’ I thought if I don’t make a change now and try to figure out what else I could be doing with my life, I might not get the chance anymore.”
At nearly 41, Allan is still struggling to decide where to go from here. After a year-long job ended in redundancy in November, she took another position recently that lasted just three weeks before she decided it wasn’t for her.
“The overwhelming emotion I felt was lost. It’s embarrassing as well that I didn’t feel I could put concerted energy into one direction and stick with it. I would dabble with something then go off and look at something else, almost like trying to find the trigger that would feel right, that would make me feel good.
“I’m still trying to figure out what my purpose is, what the point is and what will make me happy. There’s an underlying feeling I’m missing something and I don’t know what it is.”
Allan isn’t alone. Research both here and internationally has shown many of us experience what’s become known as the happiness U-curve, in which our 40s are the lowest point, before our satisfaction with life increases again, peaking when we’re over 60.
Wellbeing surveys by the Auckland University of Technology’s Human Potential Centre have not only confirmed the trend, but have also unearthed novel data that may help to explain it. Its analyses of the results of more than 10,000 adults questioned for the Sovereign Wellbeing Index shows that in several important measures, 40-somethings scored poorly. They reported the lowest rate of any age group for connecting with others more than once a week, and were second to bottom when asked if they were learning a great deal. The age group was also associated with lower-than average measures of “flourishing”,
defined as people who were in supportive and rewarding relationships, who actively contributed to the happiness of others, led purposeful and meaningful lives, and were engaged and interested in their activities. Just over 43 per cent of 40-somethings were flourishing – the same rate as those aged 80-plus. But from the age of 50 on, there was a very different picture, as life satisfaction and happiness ratings rose and depression scores dropped. Levels of “flourishing” gradually increased through to the 70s, before declining again in old age as ill health and disability impacted on wellbeing.
Investigator Dr Aaron Jarden says the work found a very strong relationship between money and wellbeing, but it was not strongly related to the amount earned. “Someone earning $200,000 a year who was spending more than that could have their wellbeing majorly impacted, while someone earning $50,000 and living within that had high wellbeing.”
He says there’s plenty of debate and disagreement internationally about why midlife seems to be associated with a decline in happiness. “There are some things people agree on more – that it’s the time of life when people are more stressed, they have more responsibilities, both at work and for children. A lot of what impacts on the hedonic, or pleasurable, aspects of life takes a hit around that time.”
Conversely, though, it’s also a time that corresponds with an increase in the so-called eudaimonic, or meaning and purpose, aspects of life.
“Having children, for example – you take a really big hit in your pleasure but a really big gain in sense of meaning and purpose. Your recipe for wellbeing around that time changes a bit as well, so everyone you ask will give a completely different answer to what’s driving this – it’s a range of things from expectations to stress.”
Positive relationships, the ability to regulate emotions, and natural resilience can be buffers to the dip. “The U-shape is over a nation, but there’s a lot of variability when you look at individuals.”
Jarden believes environmental, psychological – and possibly even biological – changes are responsible for our increasing happiness as we age. It’s likely we better appreciate the value of life as we get older, gain the resilience to handle setbacks, and have fewer aspirations and expectations. He says older people know they can’t please everyone all the time and tend to become less neurotic and more extroverted.
Jock Matthews, clinical director of Auckland’s Rojolie Clinic, which specialises in treating anxiety and depression, says he prefers to call it a midlife rethink rather than a midlife crisis.
“Many of the people I see are relatively high functioning, so they have this idealised expectation of being in a
certain place and feeling a certain way at that time, and often it’s less fulfilling than they would like it to be. So then they question that – what is it about me? They go through a period of reflection, which I think is actually quite healthy. It’s a readjustment.”
He believes the rethink period is more likely to start in the mid-40s, rather than early 40s, as people begin to reflect on what gives them a sense of worth, “and they often realise work doesn’t equal worth, but a whole bunch of other things do, like good relationships, the quality of their friendships, the sense of connection. If it’s just based on work, then you’re balancing the weight of the world on the end of a pin. You have to have a number of things you can put in your goodie basket to spread the risk.”
Although Matthews doesn’t believe that the midlife rethink is a condition necessarily associated with affluence, psychotherapist Kyle MacDonald, who blogs on psychology issues and co-hosts radio’s Nutter’s Club, says there’s a “capitalist bias” in much of the discussion around it.
In a 2015 blog, he decried the midlife crisis as a myth. “There is at best very weak evidence for a crisis that’s directly triggered by simply entering the phase of life called middle age,” he wrote. “But that doesn’t mean there aren’t unique and specific challenges associated with this phase of life. It doesn’t mean you can’t get depressed, re-evaluate your life, or otherwise struggle for a plethora of reasons in the middle phase of life. It just ain’t the number on your birthday cake that’s the problem.”
If there is a struggle in middle age, MacDonald says, it’s probably one with a uniquely capitalist bias. “When we get to our 40s, we are supposed to be happy. We have the house, we have the car, we have the job, we have the career, we have the spouse, kids and so on. We have the things we’ve been striving for, but a lot of people can get to that point and realise it’s the striving that was keeping them going, rather than the getting.”
Clients who seek help for issues in midlife are usually not depressed because of their age but the course their life has taken. There may be no obvious reason for feeling low in midlife, but “there’s always a reason, sometimes they’re not aware of it. Sometimes people just aren’t emotionally and psychologically literate enough.”
The biomedical approach to mental health, which excludes social and psychological factors, sells us short. “It gives us a reason to stop thinking about these things. We can just say, ‘Oh, it’s a chemical imbalance in the brain,’ and insight and thinking stops at that point. It’s a real shame because it can leave people with the sense that there is something broken and wrong with them, as opposed to being able to get some help to think about why now are you struggling to feel happy and how we can understand it. It might be unique to every individual, but there’s always going to be a narrative or back-story that makes sense of why.”
Realising in our 40s that life is short can cause existential despair and depression, a feeling of regret and of time running out, he says, but it can also trigger a refreshing rejuvenation – of making the most of that time.
For women approaching their 40s, like Allan, the crucial decision of whether to have children or focus on their career causes them more angst than the issue of losing their sexual allure, he says. “My experience is that people tend to get more comfortable with their sexuality as they get older. Certainly there are things to adjust to as we get older, but the ability to communicate and understand how a relationship functions tends to get better, because sex is often just a barometer of how the relationship is functioning.”
The 40s are a peak age for one of midlife’s biggest stresses: separation and divorce. In New Zealand, the median age for men is 46 and women 44. But American developmental psychologist David Almeida, who studies stress and coping in midlife, says day-to-day hassles, such as fights with a spouse or deadlines at work, better reflect wellbeing than such major life events.
In midlife, we’re overloaded with those daily stresses, juggling too many at once. Women, in particular, often have the additional problem of “crossover” stress – simultaneous demands from work and family. In Almeida’s work, people in their 40s reported more tensions than younger people around concerns for other people, such as ageing parents and adult children.
Playwright Roger Hall, who made his name internationally in the late 1970s through the success of Middle-Age Spread, a play about teacher Colin’s midlife crisis, charted the happiness U-curve in that play, and then in last year’s You Can Always Hand Them Back, a show about being a grandparent.
Hall also wrote Spreading Out, the sequel to Middle-Age Spread, more than 20 years after the original debuted, in which Colin and his wife Elizabeth were “smugly enjoying” their modest vineyard in the Wairarapa. “They may not be blissfully happy, enduring a bickering relationship, but at least they are secure.”
The midlife crisis is not “a physical thing”, he says, but an “understandable response to the realisation that one is halfway through life” and once we accept that, there are compensations. “The children have got past the stage when they have to be watched at every moment… they become civilised and finally leave. If all goes according to plan then, in theory, many of the urgent financial problems – notably buying and setting up a home – have been mostly covered. Happiness may not lie ahead, but there’s a great chance for contentment.”
As you age, you’ve had more experience of negative events and you’ve kind of learned the skills to buffer them, so they don’t hit you as hard as they do in midlife
So, what are the people who cruise through the midlife minefield doing right? Aaron Jarden, who specialises in positive psychology, studied the Sovereign research data for clues to what people with high wellbeing scores were doing differently to those who weren’t faring so well.
He says many previous studies haven’t examined the link between physical and mental wellbeing, but the data showed people who were eating well, moving a lot and sleeping well had above-average levels of wellbeing, while those with a poor diet, a sedentary lifestyle and poor sleep patterns had “very poor” scores.
“It’s telling us that physical health is almost like a bedrock to build psychological wellbeing upon, but that link is not realised in the literature base just yet. It sounds common sense to us, but not from an academic perspective.”
Intriguingly, though, happiness scores increase as we become less physically vigorous with age and Jarden says that’s just one more part of the puzzle. “These people seem to have a better understanding of their capabilities, their expectations. They set more realistic goals, and that counts for a lot. But also I think as you age, you’ve had more experience of negative events and you’ve kind of learned the skills to buffer them, so they don’t hit you as hard as they do in midlife. Early in life, you have your blinkers on to a lot of life, but later there’s an element of ‘been through that before’.”
The research also emphasises what other studies have found – that people who improve the quality of their relationships with friends and family “drastically improve” their wellbeing. Also important is finding some meaning in life, some purpose to aim for. “The search for meaning itself is not so good – it throws up a bit of trauma.”
American author and journalist Jonathan Rauch, who wrote about going through the happiness U-curve in his 40s for The Atlantic magazine in 2014, says his experience wasn’t so much a crisis as a “constant drizzle of disappointment”.
“What annoyed me most of all, much more than the disappointment itself, was that I felt ungrateful, the last thing in the world I was entitled to be.”
In his 40s, he found himself obsessively comparing his life with others’, scoring and judging himself and counting the ways in which he had fallen behind. But as he aged, he became more accepting and less regretful of his limitations. As he moved into his 50s, Rauch wrote, despite hitting setbacks including the loss of his job and death of his parents, “the fog of disappointment and self-censure started to lift, at first almost imperceptibly, then more distinctly”.
He says he wishes he’d known about the growing research on the happiness U-curve in his 40s, and realised that whatever people described as a midlife crisis was for many a transition to something much better – “something, there is reason to hope, like wisdom”.
The clichéd depiction of the midlife crisis is usually one-dimensional: the middle-aged man who ditches his wife for a younger lover, buys a sports car and gets Botox in a futile search for his lost youth.
But two of the world’s foremost researchers in the area, UK economists David Blanchflower and Andrew Oswald, who found “robust” evidence of the happiness U-curve in a 2007 study of 500,000 Americans and Europeans, say understanding the roots of the phenomenon is an important task.
Some potential answers are more plausible than others. “One possibility is that individuals learn to adapt to their strengths and weaknesses, and quell the infeasible aspirations of their youth.” Or, they say, a kind of comparison is at work: “I have seen school friends die and I’ve come eventually to value my blessings during my remaining years.”
The U-curve has not only shown up regularly in international surveys of life satisfaction in first-world countries around the world, but also in primates. A 2012 paper out of the University of Warwick in the UK, which Oswald authored, questioned zookeepers, animal researchers and caretakers on the behaviour of more than 500 captive chimps and found the apes’ wellbeing bottomed out at comparable ages, implying the U-curve “is not uniquely human”. (Some put this down to an unidentified, age related biological influence.)
Not uniquely human, perhaps, but research published in 2014 suggests the U-curve may be unique to high-income, English-speaking countries. Princeton University professor of economics and international affairs Angus Deaton, in a paper in The Lancet, compared the relationship between age and wellbeing across four different groups: wealthy English-speaking countries, Eastern Europe and former members of the Soviet Union, sub-Saharan Africa, and Latin America and the Caribbean. The English-speaking countries were the only ones to show the U-curve, with life satisfaction declining with age in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet bloc and Latin America, and remaining static in Africa. Likewise, worry and unhappiness declined with age in the English-speaking countries but rose in Eastern Europe, suggesting the health and social-welfare safety net in Western countries outweighed the negative effects of ageing.
The relationship between wellbeing and wealth is complex. Money makes a big difference to those who can’t afford to meet their basic needs, but for people who can afford the basics, more money doesn’t make us happier – more important is the ability to live within our means.
In international surveys, for example, Scandinavian countries will come out on top when people are asked about their life satisfaction. And yet, those in the poorest countries, such as India, have high levels of happiness and joy, says Jarden, “even though they’re destitute”. Countries that have dramatically increased GDP haven’t seen a corresponding increase in wellbeing base rates.
MacDonald and Jarden see relative inequality as the “big sleeper issue” politically and psychologically. “More unequal societies suffer more of the problems like depression and anxiety; in more equal societies, everybody tends to be better off,” says MacDonald. “If you’re in the top 10 per cent of an equal country, you’re better off than in the top 10 per cent of an unequal country on a whole bunch of health measures.
“Money makes you happier; it gets rid of worries, but past a certain point it can be quite dissatisfying. And we do know that ‘things’ don’t make us happy. The novelty wears off new cars and possessions at around three months,” he adds. “We’re much better to spend our money on experiences that allow us to spend meaningful time with people we care about. So we’re better off to go on holiday to a place we’ve never been with our family than buy the new car.”
Anxiety and depression are increasingly common in the Western, English-speaking world, and inequality is a big driver. “What it sets up is the idea that we have to keep on the treadmill, that we should always be trying to move forward and have more and move our career on and if we don’t, we will fall down the rungs like snakes and ladders,” says MacDonald.
Jarden agrees. “We have many different types of inequality – racial, sexual, economic, political, between nations… most of it boils down to inequality of opportunity. It’s a huge problem. The growing inequality gap will have a major impact on wellbeing.”
But he says he can’t get politicians to engage with the issue. “Everyone in politics I talk to will ignore anything to do with wellbeing. I find it really fascinating. What’s the purpose of politics if it’s not to create a better society?”
For business psychologist and leadership coach Jasbindar Singh, evidence of the happiness U-curve is “wholly reassuring for a lot of folk”.
Singh spent the 1990s helping workers, many in their 40s, switch paths because of forced redundancy, and wrote Get Your Groove Back in 2006 for people dissatisfied with their career choices. “When people get unhappy, it’s hard to be objective and say, ‘I’m going through a U-curve or a transition.’ They get trapped in the quagmire of it all. ‘What’s wrong with me? I’m such a loser, I don’t have courage...’ We beat ourselves up.”
What helps, she says, is finding out what our needs and motivations are, with family and connections particularly powerful drivers of wellbeing. “The fundamentals of being human are simple. We want to be loved, we want to be valued, we want to feel connected and cared for. We want to feel we matter, that our contribution counts for something. It’s about the bigger picture. It’s about having a sense of meaning, purpose and connection. We are all seeking that relevance. When you lose relevance, you lose hope.”
Jess Allan, who we met at the start of this story, says she’s beginning to feel more hopeful about the future, and is taking time to practise mindfulness and do regular walks.
“I kept looking for the thing that will make me happy, but our expectations are often the things that make us unhappy if they’re unrealistic. I’m just letting go a little bit and I’ll stop trying to control it or force it – stop trying to manufacture something that brings that feeling of contentment back again.
“I’ve just got to trust a little more that it’s going to be okay, and make sure I’m looking after the other side, nurturing the friendships and creativity that I probably let slip away.”
Wellbeing is highest in people with household incomes of more than $100,000, and lowest among those on $30,000 or less, Auckland University of Technology research has found. It showed those coping on their income were nearly three times more likely to have optimal wellbeing than those finding it difficult.
Significantly, despite more of those aged 65 to 74 living on less money, their proportion of “adequate” incomes was similar to couples under 35 with no children, the group most likely of any age group to report they had enough money to live on.
The Sovereign data also showed 42 per cent of people 65 and over reported being in the highest wellbeing groups, compared to just 22 per cent of those aged 35 to 44, and 24 per cent aged 45 to 54. From 55 to 64, the rate increased to 30 per cent.
Conversely, just 12 per cent of those aged 55 to 64 and six per cent of those aged 65 to 74 reported being depressed in the week before the survey – much lower rates than those aged less than 55 (19 per cent).
Worried you’re heading for a midlife crisis? Former clinical psychologist and now leadership coach Jasbindar Singh lists 21 signs you may be going through a transition in your life.
- You’re no longer satisfied with what used to satisfy you before.
- You feel restless, uneasy and out of sorts.
- You feel disconnected with people and certain areas of your life.
- You find yourself wishing you were somewhere else or doing something different.
- You’re suddenly aware of how short life is.
- You feel like you’re getting old and there is not enough time.
- You find yourself thinking, “Is this all there is?”
- You’re doing out-of-character things (eg. unexplained crying).
- Friends have commented on your sudden change in behaviour and jokingly say you’re having a midlife crisis.
- You feel stuck in a rut.
- Your mood is one of hopelessness, helplessness or depression.
- You have low energy, lack of focus and feel lethargic.
- You compare yourself to family and friends and feel like you haven’t done as well as them, or as well as you would have liked to.
- You get irritable and short and blame others, such as your long-term partner, for your current situation.
- Your consumption of alcohol or other drugs has increased.
- You look at the opposite (or same) sex, especially those much younger than you, with renewed interest.
- You are tempted to cheat or have already had an affair.
- To feel good about yourself, you’ve begun spending up large.
- Exercising to keep yourself looking young is a new norm.
- You’re dreaming up ways to escape the monotony of your life.
- You’re seriously considering doing things you’ve always wanted to, but delayed for “good reasons”.
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