The Happiness Curve

I started excitedly typing these words last week: “I was thinking it was just me … but it turns out I’m not the only 50 year old on a high.”

I’d just read an article by Jonathan Rauch, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, who has written a book called The Happiness Curve: Why Life Gets Better After 50.

He said:

After struggling to understand myself in my 20s and to establish myself in my 30s, I finally hit my stride in my 40s. My health was vibrant and I had a successful career in journalism, plenty of money, wonderful friends and a loving, stable relationship.

It was the unhappiest decade of my life.

Today I know why: recent research in economics, psychology and neuroscience shows that aging has an independent effect on life satisfaction, separate from factors such as health, wealth and other life circumstances. In other words, time is not an emotionally neutral backdrop. Instead, its effect on happiness is U-shaped: Other things being equal, people’s life satisfaction tends to decline from their early 20s until midlife, then turns around at about age 50.

A burst of almost evangelical fervour rippled through me as I read the article.

I thought I’d discovered the key to why I’ve been feeling so different. It also put such a positive spin on ageing, rather than the usual downhill slope.

As one reviewer noted, in a world that fetishizes youth, writing a book subtitled ‘Why Life Gets Better After 50’ is practically an act of revolution.

Rauch adds: “Around the time I turned 40 I noticed this strange feeling of restlessness and discontent. This continued to grow as I got into my 40s to the point where I was 45 and I won the most prestigious award in magazine journalism [a National Magazine award] and that gave me a great feeling of satisfaction with my life for approximately 10 days.

“All these feelings of discontent and restlessness – and even sometimes worthlessness and this feeling I’d almost wasted my life – kept coming back.

“None of this made any rational sense. I began to think there must be something wrong with me. I began to think my personality had begun to turn dark in some way and that of course compounded the problem.”

Around 50, Rauch’s fog began to lift, despite the death of both his parents, the loss of his magazine job and the failure of a startup venture.

Now 58, he says: “In my 50s, first the volume of the demons’ voices went down, and now I rarely hear their voices at all.”

I was giddy to think the demon’s voices might be virtually gone from my head in eight years time. How wonderful!

And then Anthony Bourdain committed suicide. And my overactive brain shot off on a totally different tangent.

I must be the only person in the world who only knows Anthony Bourdain as a name. Going by my Facebook feed, he’s had a profound effect on millions of people’s lives.

There’s been a collective outpouring of grief to surpass that of any actor or musician who has passed away in recent years.

I can’t offer any theories on why that is, as he’s never touched my life.

But it’s reminded me that mental health is a complicated beast – it’s easy to miss the signs that someone is struggling. That’s because there’s often light with the shade. (Sometimes genuine, sometimes because it’s what you project to avoid discomforting others.)

As Neil Finn sings in ‘Four Seasons in One Day’: “Even when you’re feeling warm, the temperature could drop away. Like four seasons in one day.”

Bourdain was an adoring dad, he was in a loving relationship, he was a successful author, chef and TV star, yet he found himself – to quote Finn’s lyrics again: “Sleeping on an unmade bed, finding out wherever there is comfort there is pain. Only one step away, like four seasons in one day.”

That’s what people sometimes don’t understand about depression – it’s not always cookie cutter sadness. There can be four seasons in one day – happiness can co-exist with despair.

A person can seem is fine because they’re having a laugh with you. But a hour later the temperature could drop away.

So how does that fit with “The Happiness Curve”? I think, as you age, the light and shade returns. In my early 40s, I wasn’t seeing much contrast in my emotions. They were muted and I wasn’t sure I knew what true happiness felt like any more.

At 50, I know it’s the most wonderful high.

But that certainty doesn’t mean there aren’t still lows.

I’ve never wanted a way out, I can’t imagine feeling the way Bourdain must have done in that hotel room – how could he possibly think the highs weren’t worth living for?

But I do understand how it feels to have four seasons in your head and heart in one day.

Song of the day: Crowded House “Four Seasons In One Day”

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