Author Jonathan Rauch calls it the "U-curve," the pattern you'd see if you charted adult happiness by age (picture a big smile). Rauch, who experienced an inexplicable emotional lull in his 40s, wants to spread the word about the U-curve. He thinks it would help people in their 40s and 50s to believe themselves what they tell their angst-ridden teenagers: “Don’t worry, it gets better.”
Things Look Up After Midlife
A chart in the article, based on U.S. Gallup Poll data, shows that on a scale of 1 to 10, people in their late 40s and early 50s rated their level of satisfaction at about 7 (the lowest lifetime level recorded). In contrast, those in their 90s rated their life satisfaction close to 8.5 and those in their late teens and early 20s put their life satisfaction at about 7.5.
2. People who are unhappier die sooner, increasing the average level of satisfaction among the pool of remaining respondents.
Princeton researcher Hannes Schwandt explored the expectations gap by reviewing a German study which tracked participants for 23 years asking how satisfied they felt at the time of the interview and how satisfied they expected to be five years later. Interestingly, he found that younger people overestimated how happy they'd be in five years and older people underestimated this. In middle age, these two phenomena collided so that satisfaction was declining as were expectations for people in their 50s. After that, Schwandt found, expectations stopped declining while actual life satisfaction improved.
"This finding" Schwandt writes, “supports the hypothesis that the age U-shape in life satisfaction is driven by unmet aspirations that are painfully felt during midlife but beneficially abandoned and felt with less regret during old age.”
- Older people are less prone to feel unhappy about things they can’t change.
- Social reasoning and long-term decision making improve with age.
- People feel better, not worse, about their lives as they move through their later decades, even with the onset of chronic health problems that would lead one to expect distress or depression.
Of course, none of the findings in The Atlantic article account for those who experience depression, anxiety, loss, loneliness, chronic illness or dementia post-midlife. While showing that those under 65 anticipate a greater incidence of memory loss, depression and loneliness than those over 65 actually experience, a Pew Research Center study cited by the Wall Street Journal found that people over 65 do suffer these conditions at a rate of 25 percent, 20 percent and 17 percent respectively.
Perhaps the only thing worse than feeling bad about some of these things is knowing that many people in their 50s and older are the happiest they’ve ever been. Still, we know a key to good health is to maintain a positive outlook. The findings reported by The Atlantic and The Wall Street Journal give those of us at or close to this stage of our lives reason to look forward to our later years. It’s not all downhill from here.
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