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Are You Having a Midlife Crisis or a U-curve?

Research points to a better outlook and happier times ahead


After depressing us with an article making the case for dying at 75, here comes The Atlantic with something decidedly cheerier — research showing that our outlook on life improves with age.  

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.”   
 

“Studies show quite strongly that people’s satisfaction with their life increases, on average, from their early 50s on through their 60s and 70s and even beyond — for many until disability and final illness exact their toll toward the very end (at which point it’s hard to generalize)," Rauch writes. He cites a raft of research backing this claim, including a 2011 study by psychologist Laura L. Carstensen and her colleagues at Stanford University's Center on Longevity. They found, Rauch says, that "the peak of emotional life may not occur until well into the seventh decade." 

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. 

 
The phenomenon is not unique to the U.S. — birthplace of the midlife crisis. David Blanchflower and Andrew Oswald of the University of Warwick found that 55 of 80 countries followed a similar satisfaction U-curve when their residents were asked, “All things considered, how satisfied are you with your life as a whole these days?” The nadir was at an average age of 46. 
 
“Whatever sets of data you looked at,” Blanchflower told Rauch, “you got the same things." That is, Rauch writes,"life satisfaction would decline with age for the first couple of decades of adulthood, bottom out somewhere in the 40s or early 50s, and then, until the very last years, increase with age, often (though not always) reaching a higher level than in young adulthood.”
What's Driving the U-Curve? 
 
So why the lull in midlife followed by an upswing? Rauch offers three reasons: 

1. In midlife, many people are caring for children and aging parents, juggling careers with caregiving and experiencing stressors which diminish as these dependencies lessen.

2. People who are unhappier die sooner, increasing the average level of satisfaction among the pool of remaining respondents. 

 
3. Rauch's most compelling explanation is the "expectations gap." In midlife we may feel that we did not measure up to the goals we set in our youth. As we age, we are more realistic about goals and more satisfied with what we achieve. By the time we reach our 60s, we are more inclined to live in the present and focus more on personal relationships and less on success as measured by society and our peers.  

(MORE: Why We Should Stop Stressing Over Stress)

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.”

MORE9 Best Things About Being Over 50)

 
Likewise, in summarizing their 2011 research, Carstensen and her colleagues wrote, “As people age and time horizons grow shorter, people invest in what is most important, typically meaningful relationships, and derive increasingly greater satisfaction from these investments.” 
 
The Wall Street Journal reports this week that those 65 and older disclosed greater overall life satisfaction than people in any other age group surveyed by the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index survey. Asked how satisfied they were with the social, financial, physical, community and purpose aspects of their lives, more than 40 percent of those over 65 said they were 'thriving" in these areas — far more than those age 18-29, 30-44 or 45-64. 
 
Other hopeful findings Rauch cites:
  • 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.

 

Not Blue Skies for All 

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.

(MORE: Why We Live Longer — and Can Still Live Better)

 

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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