Photo Credit: Bernard Hermant, Unsplash.com

Contrary to urban legend, most of us won’t experience a crisis in our midlife–unless, of course, we make a drastic, big mistake.

What happens is more like a gradual slide, where it gets harder and harder to feel satisfied, no matter how well things are going, objectively. A growing body of scientific research reveals this temporary slump in happiness is, in fact, evolutionarily hardwired into our biology to help us reboot our changing role in society.

OIA’s Luke Iorio sat down with award-winning journalist and The Brooking Institution’s Senior Fellow Jonathan Rauch to talk about his new book The Happiness Curve: Why Life Gets Better After 50. In the podcast, they discuss why the dip occurs, how to navigate the transition, and what’s waiting on the other side.

How Satisfied Are “U?”

It seems that time, or the aging process itself–not stress, health, or how busy we are–has a “U” shape effect on our life satisfaction.

Our happiness starts out high in early adulthood, and then undergoes a gentle, smooth, and inevitable decline until about 45 or 50 before it ultimately rises again.

Rauch compares the curve to an undercurrent,

“It’s how hard we have to row to keep moving towards happiness. The current works against you until you are about 50 and then it turns around and starts working with you.”

Researchers have discovered that apes suffer the same dip in fulfillment through their life span, and humans are one of only three known species where females long outlive their fertility years.  These factors have led scientists to believe the happiness curve has a broader evolutionary purpose.

In his book, Rauch writes,

“The curve seems to be imprinted on our biology to repurpose us for a changing role in society as we age–a role that is less about ambition and competition and more about connection and compassion. [Midlife] is a time when we stop focusing on acquiring–family, home, career, and financial assets and start to invest outward into the next generation, the community or a cause.”

When we understand the midlife transition is just like adolescence–a natural, healthy, and normal developmental milestone–we can depersonalize it, feel less shame and isolation about it, and create a larger meaning behind it.

Midlife’s particularly challenging because it’s the transition period when we experience a growing tension between what we really want out of life and what we’re actually doing. It’s often the period of time when our values are out of alignment with our life situation.

Since this changeover in values can take years, the middle period–when we’re neither here nor there–can be the roughest. We get caught between: what was and what could be, what we need to do and what we want do, and who we think we are and who we actually are.

Rauch shares that the midlife transition’s particularly tricky because the bottom of the happiness curve is like a time trap where we feel disappointed about the past and pessimistic about the future. He suggests one way to navigate the trough is to stop ruminating about the past and worrying about the future and live in the present–good advice at any point of our lives.

Additionally, humans are known to be really bad at attributing the causes of our dissatisfaction. Through midlife, in particular, we’re often tempted to throw all the cards up in the air and make drastic changes–in our career or relationships–because it’s a path out of the discomfort. Rauch cautions to step, don’t leap,

“…keep any change rational, local and non-disruptive, build on your strengths and social capital, and consult with family and friends to make sure it makes sense.”

He also recommends working with a coach or a therapist to help surface the values that are in conflict and identify a path forward to create a life that feels more aligned.

The most important thing to remember is time’s on our side. This too shall pass and there are things to look forward to on the upside of the curve–it’s not as if the best years are behind us. Research has shown that past the age of 50, changes in our brain make us more positive, we experience less regret, and we aren’t as reactive to stressors.

There’s simply no way around the happiness trough–the only way out is through. Normalizing the situation, and the emotions that come with it, can help us to feel less isolated and offers actions we can take to navigate the transition with more ease.

Midlife pain might be inevitable; suffering through it, however, is optional.

Alison Deutsch is a certified coach with iPEC. She wrote another article which includes even more insight into this topic on her website. Read more here.

Listen to Jonathan Rauch as he discusses his book and research on the One Idea Away Podcast.

Photo Credit: Bernard Hermant, Unsplash.com