Generalizing from his own experience, Jonathan Rauch finds evidence of a U-shaped happiness curve in life:
I was about 50 when I discovered the U-curve and began poking through the growing research on it. What I wish I had known in my 40s (or, even better, in my late 30s) is that happiness may be affected by age, and the hard part in middle age, whether you call it a midlife crisis or something else, is for many people a transition to something much better—something, there is reason to hope, like wisdom. I wish someone had told me what I was able to tell my worried friend: nothing was wrong with him, and he wasn’t alone.
My sense is that what’s really happening is that most people’s options begin to contract in middle age. They may feel more at ease because they have fewer hard decisions to make about which path in life to take, but the reality is fewer options and less opportunity. This is bad, not good. But a stark article that took my view might be a hard sell to the publications that buy Rauch’s work, and to his probably middle-aged readers.
I mentioned my thoughts to Lex and he responded:
I read this and it seemed almost useless.
Controlling for everything, you get this U-curve.
OK. People who are professionally successful, wealthy, happily married, have healthy successful children, are devoutly religious, all have their own patterns, but there is a U-curve buried in it all.
It was a longish article that ended up with: So what?
What it is really doing is telling Atlantic readers that life will get better, for no particular reason, it just will. It is a verbose equivalent of the cat hanging on a pole and the notation, Hang in there baby, Friday’s coming! Hang in there baby, in your 50s you will experience subjectively better emotional states for no reason at all.
I’m guessing that Atlantic readers are mostly middle-aged, educated, demographically like Rauch, and he is pandering to their personal concerns while citing a few vague studies. This is the modern way of self-help writing.
The old way might be to encourage people not to be self-absorbed. To this end one might suggest that readers spend more time with family, children, grandchildren, start businesses, pursue favorite activities, travel, be religious.
(How many children do Atlantic readers have on average?)
It’s easy to overdo introspective rumination. Lex’s response to this point was: “Yeah. And it does not accomplish anything. And it makes you feel worse.”
And that’s the point. Introspection may be helpful in some circumstances (in the morning, not on a work day, after a good night’s sleep, briefly, perhaps in the company of old friends), but not if indulged.
The problem with the self-esteem and you-go-girl crap that get fed to young people is not the positive feelings they engender. That part actually does some good. The problem is the discouragement of hard thought and reflection. A lot of young people, especially young women, have unrealistic ideas about life that they aren’t encouraged to question. It’s those unrealistic ideas, not the feel-good stuff, that are a problem.
The flip side of this is that a lot of older people, especially older men, have realistic ideas about how the world works but are full of destructive, negative feelings that are exacerbated by prolonged rumination.
Young women need to be taught habits of reflection and self-reliance, and old men need to be encouraged to be social and not to reflect too much. This is pretty much the opposite of how things are now.
(Note: Lex gave me permission to quote him but insisted that I pitch his book. Couldn’t hurt. It’s a great book and you would be much better off if you passed your time reading it rather than engaging in navel-gazing.)