Does Happiness Get Harder as We Get Older? One Man's Journey Through His Midlife Slump

He didn't expect it to happen to him. But when writer Jonathan Rauch slid into a deep funk in his mid-40's, he didn't know why.

"I was in a stable and happy relationship; I was healthy; I was financially secure, with a good career and marvelous colleagues; I published a book, wrote for top outlets, won a big journalism prize," he said.

Rauch should have been happy. And yet, he woke up each morning feeling dissatisfied with his own life.

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Worse, he felt embarrassed about telling anyone about the feelings he harbored. After all, who wants to listen to a guy complain about a life that, by all measures of success, was a good and rich one.

So Rauch kept his feelings to himself.

"None of it made any sense to me," he said. "I began to think there was something wrong with me, that my personality had turned dark in some way."

The feeling persisted. Months turned into years, and Rauch couldn't pinpoint the problem. And then – for what seemed like no reason at all – the fog imperceptibly began to lift. And soon, despite some real trauma in his life – both of his parents died and his professional life took some hits – the fog all but disappeared.

"In my 50s, first the volume of the demons' voices went down," he confessed. "And now I rarely hear their voices at all."

Popular culture would describe what Rauch went through as his mid-life crisis. He knew it was something more, and was determined to find out.

He spent the next several years researching the subject, and found an explanation. One he was determined to tell the world about in his latest book, "The Happiness Curve; Why Life Gets Better After 50."

In an age where the attributes of youth are perpetually celebrated, this book gives adults real reason to be hopeful. Our best days – no matter how hard the culture pounds the idea into us – are ahead of us.

"The most surprising thing I learned in my research was that age tends to work in favor of happiness, all things being equal," Rauch noted.

The other surprising thing Rauch learned is that, like the TV comedy Seinfeld, our mid-life slumps are often about nothing. It's just a natural life transition.

Regrettably, this mid-life funk strikes adults at a time when they are leading otherwise perfectly good lives.

"Things seem to be going well for them, they're achieving their goals, and nothing much has changed," Rauch explained. "But they begin to think, 'Why do I feel less satisfied than I expected to? Why does it seem to be getting worse and not better? There must be something wrong with my life.' "

Rauch offered up several explanations for why we're happier in our 50s and beyond.

Research shows that older people feel less stress and regret, dwell less on negative information and are better able to regulate their emotions. Moreover, the desire to compete against your peers, and the craving for status that accompanies it, dissipate with age, too.

"We seem to be wired to seek maximum status when we're younger – the ambition to be on top of the world, to have the big job, to have the extraordinary marriage to the wonderful person or lots of money," Rauch explained. "We're on the hedonic treadmill in our 30's and 40's, and when we don't feel the satisfaction we expected, we conclude that there's something wrong with our lives."

That's where age kicks in. And the changing perspective that accompanies the passing of time. Aging itself starts to contribute to our emotional well-being and happiness.

"As we get older, our values change.," Rauch explained. "Our priorities shift to more permanent values and virtues."

Rauch, who spent years studying the empirical research on happiness, discovered that midlife is a time of recalibration. We begin to evaluate our lives less in terms of social competition and more in terms of social connectedness.

"Over and over, I would hear people tell me that they didn't need to check certain boxes anymore, or that they didn't care what other people think anymore," Rauch explained.

Why is that easier to do when we're older? As we age, we develop emotionally.

Young people, it turns out, are miserable at regulating their emotions, Rauch learned, while older people tend to let things that would have angered them when they were younger simply slide. It helps that older people's brains react less strongly to negative stimuli than older people, something Rauch discovered in his research.

There is also an optimism bias that comes with youth, and that bias collides with reality at about the time we reach our middle ages.

"We are overly optimistic in our youth about how much satisfaction we 'll get out of our future successes," he explained. "And then as we approach our 40's, and we've achieved a lot of things we dreamed of, we simply aren't hard wired to enjoy our success."

Other studies revealed that spirituality increases with age, which also contributes to happiness. Older people can also cope better with uncertainty than young people.

Moreover, older people have what's known as a reduced regret responsiveness. "Older people are less susceptible to feeling unhappy about things they can't change," Rauch explained.

Rauch's book is about more than mere anecdotal reporting. Happiness research itself is a main character in "The Happiness Curve."

The research began as early as the 1970's and study upon study reinforced what was becoming a strong empirical pattern known as the Happiness Curve.

In what was the most startling study in the book, Stanford University psychologist Laura Carstensen and seven colleagues discovered that "the peak of emotional life may not occur until well into the seventh decade"—a finding that is "often met with disbelief in both the general population and the research community."

You heard that right. The peak of happiness occurs in your 70's!

Some of the most surprising research Rauch discovered revolved around money and happiness.

It turns out that a stable marriage, good health and enough – but not too much income – are very good for happiness. Social capital, more than money, is what makes people happy, research indicated.

It turns out six factors accounted for nearly seventy-five percent of well-being, according to happiness research. Social support, generosity, trust, freedom, income, and a healthy life expectancy, Rauch noted.

Rauch also discovered that comparison – Christians might even call it coveting, comparison's ugly cousin - is an activity that eats away at happiness.

"One secret of happiness is to ignore comparison with people who are more successful than you are: always compare downwards, not upwards, if you compare at all, " said happiness researcher Richard Layard.

The most intriguing aspects of Rauch's discovery about happiness had to do with the nature of time.

"As people age and time horizons grow shorter," researchers noted in a report on happiness, "people invest in what is most important, typically meaningful relationships, and derive increasingly greater satisfaction from these investments."

They gave this process a name: selective theory. Older people concerned themselves with making careful decisions about whom to spend their time with, and how to spend it. They were, it turns out, weeding their personal gardens.

"Time and aging fight happiness in midlife, then switch sides," Rauch concluded in what may be the perfect summary of the entire book.

That's a hopeful and good thing to know as we age.

Rauch stumbled upon one older woman in his research named Nora, who was 94 when he met her, and living with a cancer diagnosis. When asked to rate her own happiness, she had this to say: "100% satisfied with everything."

Nora has since passed away. But her words and her attitude – and so much of what we learn in Rauch's book – gives us all reason for hope as we age.

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