Many of the ‘same-age’ women in my life these days seem to be drowning at the bottom of the happiness curve. There are a myriad of life events, all stacking up to conspire against us. We’re at the peak of a very successful, stress-riddled career; or, we feel like we’ve fallen way short on our professional potential. Our kids, if we have them, are coming of age – driving, handling their own academic paths, making their own, often times in secret, decisions on their love lives and friends, and transitioning to adulting. Our parents are growing feeble, more dependent on us, dying. Our marriages are ending in record numbers. We are physically uncomfortable; encumbered by hot flashes, insomnia, unwanted weight gain.
Should I go on? Probably not…..We’re all in this together, right? So, when and how do things get better for us? An answer, because I am sure there are many, is to WAIT. Wait until we get older…. WHAT???? Older??? I don’t know about all you other KUEL women, but this seems counterintuitive to me. I am already frustrated by my current age and its limitations. “Older” age with its possible declining health, potential social isolation, and decreased independence sounds like a recipe for MORE UNHAPPY to me. But what do I know?
I dug around the research and here’s what I came up with: The U-Bend of Life. If you’re currently in the trough of this U-shaped happiness curve, maybe knowing that it’s statistically ‘normal’ and seemingly self-corrects might be a helpful immediate mood adjuster.
“Almost 40 percent of Americans 65 and older rated themselves “very happy” compared with only 33 percent of those 35 to 49, report surveys by the National Opinion Research Center (NORC) at the University of Chicago.”
A few years back the Atlantic had a great piece on “The Real Roots of Midlife Crisis” where Jonathan Rauch, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington and author of The Happiness Curve: Why Life Gets Better After 50, informs us that this phenomenon is not just an American quirk. And, not only is it not US-specific, it appears to reach outside of ‘just humans’. Andrew Oswald, a Professor of Economics and Behavioral Science at the University of Warwick, along with primatologists, studied more than 500 captive chimps and orangutans in Australia, Canada, Japan, Singapore, and the United States. They used questionnaires to have the experts who interacted daily with the animals to rate the well-being of their primate charges. Like it or not, our primate brethren seem to experience life similarly.
The apes’ well-being bottomed out at ages comparable, in people, to between 45 and 50. “Our results,” the authors concluded in a 2012 paper, “imply that human wellbeing’s curved shape is not uniquely human and that, although it may be partly explained by aspects of human life and society, its origins may lie partly in the biology we share with closely related great apes.” – The Real Roots of Midlife Crisis, Jonathan Rauch
Unlike our caged observed primate friends, I personally can’t sit around and wait for happiness. I have never been one to sit around and wait for anything, for that matter. What can we do NOW to expedite the return of Happy? Every time I find myself wishing for the passing of something…. the renovation of a kitchen, the student-driver ‘sometimes the adrenaline surges are so high they make me sweat’ months, the early stages of Kuel Life which are rich in hours worked and poor in financial compensation; I remind myself: “I don’t want to wish my life away.” And, while maybe the U-Bend Curve will naturally move me along to a happier state, I need to pro-actively seek ways to enhance my joy NOW.
The research is consistent. What brings joy? Human connection; more lunch dates, less Netflix. Experiences over things; more travel, less shoes. Physical activity; more jump rope, less sitting. Practicing gratitude; I have a living list of what I am grateful for (one which I review regularly – adding/removing/editing items) to keep me in the now. Enough money to feel free. And, believe it or not, it’s not six figures. A fascinating study found that peak levels of happiness happen once $75,000 annual income is achieved. And, while health seems an obvious essential ingredient to happiness, it seems that those of us who are fortunate enough to experience overall good health take it too much for granted to have it affect our joy scale.
I have to admit, my happy meter already up-ticked this morning just by making a short list of immediate actions that are within my control. So, while we patiently wait for that wonderful “Gosh, I am sooooo happy to be 65” moment; we can make some real-time adjustments that will help answer the “How Much Longer Will I Be Unhappy?” question…. not much.