Happy belated birthday to me! Yup, I celebrated the Big Five-Two yesterday. And with it, the realization that — statistically speaking — I’m the unhappiest now that I’ll ever be. Cheers to that!
According to a recent Washington Post article, 52 (or thereabouts) is the age at which people in the industrialized west feel the most miserable. Illusions have been shattered, dreams abandoned, hair lost, and there’s nothing new and shiny to replace them with. Understandably, we feel glum.
As the authors of a recent study on life satisfaction point out, in wealthy countries like ours, middle age is a particularly stressful time. People in their late 40’s and early 50’s are often at the peak of their careers — or are just beginning to realize that they’ll never achieve the professional or financial security success they had hoped. Many are dealing with truculent teenagers whose college educations need funding, and — sometimes simultaneously — with older relatives who need their care.
To round it all off, health problems start rearing their ugly heads, partly as a result of the stress of middle age: Elevated blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar, seemingly unsheddable weight, insomnia, depression and anxiety, arthritis, cancer. Yup, we middle-aged folks are having a blast!
But, as a graphic from the study (below) shows, if we hang in there, things will get better. Just look!
We become happier — in the case of the red curve, positively ecstatic! — as we get older.
I’m sure this, too, has many reasons. For one, we realize that we need to take better care of ourselves by eating better, exercising, managing our stress, working smarter and improving our sleep habits. In my experience, self-care brings with it a greater sense of self-worth and this, in turn, can spill over into better health, happier relationships and an overall improved sense of “life satisfaction.” (I will blog about all this in the coming weeks as I have spent the past five years doing all this – with some interesting results.)
Moreover, as Laura Carstensen, the director of the Stanford Center on Longevity, points out in her wonderful TED Talk, Older People Are Happier (video below), research shows that we become wiser and more satisfied as we age.
Stress, worry and anger decrease. We are more able to feel emotional ambivalence — i.e., feeling sad and happy at the same time. Unlike our younger selves, we view injustice with compassion but not despair. Given a choice, we accentuate the positive. This positivity bias allows us to derive greater enjoyment and satisfaction from life.
As Carstensen explains, these changes are grounded in human ability to monitor time. It’s what she calls the “paradox of aging:” Recognizing that we won’t live forever changes our perspective on life in positive ways.
In our youth, we take a long life for granted and live blithely in the future. But once we hit 50, we start to realize that our time on earth is finite and are no longer willing to waste this precious resource. “No one over 50 goes on blind dates,” Carstensen jokes. As we age, our time horizons grow shorter and our goals change. Priorities become clearer. We pay less attention to trivial matters, we savor life, are more appreciative, open to reconciliation. Life gets better, and we are happier.
So here’s to middle age. Let the good times roll.