Miserable and Middle Aged? Is Something Wrong With You?

Jonathan Rauch explains why it's hard to be happy in our 40s.

Posted Apr 27, 2018

If you’re in your forties and you're asked to complete the sentence, “I’m dissatisfied with my life right now because…” what if you can’t think of anything to put after the because?

Jonathan Rauch knows how you feel.

 Richard A Bloom
Source: Jonathan Rauch. Used with permission. Photo credit: Richard A Bloom

A prolific and successful author, Rauch is an award-winning journalist, a senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution, and a contributing editor at National Journal and The Atlantic. Despite having achieved substantial success by middle age, his life satisfaction slumped unaccountably in his 40s. Paradoxically, at around 50, when he faced real setbacks, he started to become more satisfied with his life. What was going on?

Rauch dug into the research, and found that two economists—one from Dartmouth and one from the University of Warwick—had been investigating this phenomenon since 2004. Psychologists have long known that certain life circumstances tend to impact life satisfaction; being unemployed tends to lower life satisfaction, while being married tends to raise it. But it turns out that age has a surprisingly powerful, independent effect.

The Happiness Curve. Used with permission.
Source: The Happiness Curve. Used with permission.

Using data from public opinion surveys of more than a half-million people in the United States and Europe, and controlling for variables like employment, marital status, and other social and economic conditions, David Blanchflower and Andrew Oswald found that for men and women on both sides of the Atlantic, life satisfaction reaches its lowest point in mid-life. Evaluative happiness—the kind we mean when we talk about leading a happy life—can be graphed across the life-span as a U-shaped curve. In the almost 15 years since Blanchflower and Oswald’s first discovery of the happiness U-curve, the evidence has become even more compelling.

Affective happiness—the kind of happiness we mean when we talk about our mood—is related to depression. But people can experience this mid-life dip in life satisfaction without a depressed mood. “In my own forties, my life satisfaction was low, and much lower than I thought it should be, but my mood was usually not a problem,” Rauch writes. “I did not have a mood disorder. I had a contentment disorder.”

The Happiness Curve. Used with permission.
Source: The Happiness Curve. Used with permission.

When people are not content with life, Rauch explains, they can start to feel unhappy about being unhappy. Then being unhappy about being unhappy makes them feel even worse, and the feedback loop creates a downward spiral, leading to a deepening hole of dissatisfaction. For people whose circumstances can't explain any of their unhappiness, the downward spiral can be especially extreme. “Sometimes the people who are, relatively speaking, least affected by objective circumstances will be most trapped in feedback loops,” he says. But understanding that a mid-life decrease in happiness is a normal part of life might help prevent that downward spiral. “Discovering that I was experiencing something common and normal—in fact, chimps and orangutans experience something like it—gave me relief, answers, and tools for coping,” Rauch told me. “I wanted other people to have the same knowledge.”

So he set about writing his newest book, The Happiness Curve: Why Life Gets Better After 50, in which he debunks longstanding myths about middle age and happiness. Some of the findings Rauch shares in the book are surprising—even to him. He told me about two in particular that stood out as he undertook the research for the book.

“First, the midlife malaise can be and often is about, literally, nothing. It can be a self-propelled negative emotional cycle that takes on a life of its own. In fact, successful and stable people are especially vulnerable to this weird and perverse midlife cycle. Second, after midlife, the aging process—other things being equal—makes us more happy, not less so, an effect that persists into old age and even helps protect us from the emotional toll of physical illness and decline. That's not to say everyone who is old is happy, but the stereotype of aging as an emotional horror show is the opposite of the truth.”

In the book, Rauch tells human stories that provide insight, and provides practical steps to help those in the trough of the happiness curve. For example, he describes the negative effect of social comparison, and shares the impact it had on his own happiness:

“I was not comparing my forty-year-old self to my twenty-year-old self, as the twenty-year-old version of me had assumed I would. I was comparing myself to other fortysomethings in my peer group, many of whom also had sustained relationships (often longer), accumulated wealth (often more), and achieved professional status (often higher).”

Quoting the sage advice of British economist Richard Layard, Rauch advises, “One secret of happiness is to ignore comparisons with people who are more successful than you are.”

Rauch also addresses the problem of unrealistic expectations. “Young people consistently overestimate their future life satisfaction. They make a whopping forecasting error, as non-random as it could be—as if you lived in Seattle and expected sunshine every day,” he explains. But at around age fifty, we tend to become more realistic.  

Still, “the midlife slump isn't primarily a ‘me’ problem,” he says, “it’s a ‘we’ problem, exacerbated by the stereotype of midlife crisis and the shame and isolation it causes. The key is to become—individually and as a society—better at guiding and supporting each other in middle age. Each of us can start doing that for our own friends and loved ones right now.”

Pamela Paresky
Source: Pamela Paresky

The Happiness Curve: Why Life Gets Better After 50 is available for preorder, and will be released on May 1.

Note: The author's views are her own and should not be considered the official positions of FIRE or any other organization with which the author is associated.