What mid-life crisis? Author Jonathan Rauch shares the surprising science he uncovered while writing his new book.
- Posted on Jul 12, 2018
When author Jonathan Rauch was in his mid-40s, his outlook on life took a strange turn. Instead of waking up energized, ambitious, and optimistic about the future, Rauch was struggling to find a sense of purpose, a motivating reason to get out of bed every day. What was more puzzling is that Rauch had absolutely no reason to feel this way. He was a celebrated journalist, having just won the highest award given to magazine writers. He was in a loving relationship, he had money in the bank, and he wasn’t facing any monumental tests of faith. No cancer threatened his body, there was no loss to grieve. He was as successful as he could hope to be, more so even. Yet, something was missing.
“I wondered if I'd ever be satisfied,” Rauch tells Guideposts.org. “I wondered if there was something wrong with me.”
The journalist in him hungered for answers. He read books, studies, and journals on the effects of aging, looking into the reasons for mid-life malaise and that dreaded of all clichés, the mid-life crisis. It was in his research he stumbled across something surprising, a new way scientists and professionals in the fields of economics, medicine, psychology and so forth were beginning to view aging. It was called “the happiness curve,” a U-shaped model for charting the trajectory of a person’s relative happiness during their lifetime. It changed the game for Rauch.
“We all imagine we're supposed to be at the peak of our achievement and glory and happiness at midlife and if we're not it's a midlife crisis and there's something the matter with us,” Rauch explains. “So, surprise number one is: that's totally backwards. The middle of life is a time of transition and vulnerability and, for many people, difficulty.”
Instead of reaching our peak in midlife, the happiness curve shows the exact opposite. Most people begin their lives relatively happy. When you’re in your 20s and 30s, you’re in a time of ambition, a period where you’re fighting to achieve your goals, to start a family, to begin a successful career. It’s a time of opportunity. Once a person reaches their late 40s and early 50s, instead of happiness peaking as we’ve all assumed, the happiness curve shows that the average person will go through a low-point in their life. It’s a dip in the curve, one that can last years but marks a crucial transition period in a person’s life.
For Rauch and those like him – professionally successful people who aren’t facing overwhelming struggle or tragedy during their 40s and 50s – this dip is usually caused by, well, nothing.
“That's really true, if you're someone like me and you're looking around for the problem in your life to blame it on,” Rauch explains. “There is no problem in your life to blame it on. There's no science behind that and why that would happen to people.”
Still, the data shows it does happen and often. Rauch worked with revered economists like David Blanchflower and Andrew Oswald who study the patterns of human behaviors as part of their work. He also talked to psychologists, neuroscientists, and everyday people experiencing this phenomenon of “the happiness curve.” While his research proved that a midlife dip occurs rather frequently, what alarmed him most was the ideas of why and how a person should handle feeling depressed during that period of transition.
“The problem with the midlife crisis joke is that it's not completely wrong, but it's terribly misleading because most people don't have a crisis at all. They have a gradual, slow sense of dissatisfaction,” Rauch says. “If it gets mishandled it can become a crisis but for most people, they just soldier through it, often in isolation.”
It’s how Rauch dealt with his own midlife slump. Ashamed that he wasn’t happier with his success, feeling ungrateful for all the blessings in his life, Rauch shut down. He didn’t feel comfortable talking about why he was feeling so low because he know he had no rational reason to feel that way.
“People are ashamed or embarrassed, or they hold it in,” Rauch explains. “They think there's something wrong with them, they think they're ingrates. That adds to their unhappiness and it becomes a downward spiral. I keep reminding people, just because this happens to first world people doesn't make it any less of a problem for the people who are stuck in it.”
As Rauch explains, the happiness curve is just the effect of the ticking clock on a person’s life, and that’s not based off privilege.
Because the author experienced midlife malaise himself, and because he met so many people like him who were suffering through the same doldrums of life, Rauch decided to write a book, The Happiness Curve, to explain what happens to people as they age and how others can avoid the emotional and mental pitfalls of time.
The first thing Rauch wants people in their 40s and 50s, who feel pessimistic about the future and unsatisfied with their past, to know is that they’re not alone.
“Understand there's nothing wrong with you,” Rauch says. “A second thing is don't let yourself get ashamed or isolated if you can help it. Lots of people go through this, it's totally natural. It's normal, it's not fun but it's healthy. So, find people you can reach out to, whether its counselors or coaches or friends.”
Another thing to keep in mind as you reach that crucial period of midlife: Impulsiveness is not your friend.
“It's really hard to know in midlife, if what you're feeling is a result of time, the effect of aging, or if it's the effect of other things,” Rauch explains. “I thought there must be something wrong with my career even though technically there was nothing wrong with my career, and I was tempted to just walk in one day and quit, which would've been a bad idea. Because of that uncertainty, not what's going on, we don't have clear visibility. So sure, change your life, but do it in a rational, calculated, instrumental way that builds on your strengths and your social capital. Don't do it in a disruptive or impulsive way.”
Most importantly, Rauch wants to shatter the negative stereotype associated with aging. The idea that a person’s life is on the decline once they reach their 40s, that retirement means getting put out to pasture, that happiness can’t be found in a person’s later years, is the worst lie we’ve let ourselves believe according to the writer.
“What's going on is a value transition,” Rauch says. “It takes a number of years to get through it. But when you do, you're in a better place because your values have shifted away from ambitions and the social competition treadmill and towards social connection, cooperation, love, friendship -- much better sources of happiness.”
It’s why the happiness curve is U-shaped. Once a person gets through the low point of their midlife, happiness increases to surprisingly high levels, a direct result of that value transition when people learn to place things like relationships, family, friendships, and community ahead of more self-centered desires.
“Adult development continues right to the last decades of life and in a very positive way,” Rauch says. “So, busting that negative stereotype of old age will help people in midlife understand how much they have to look forward to.”