If you’re in your 40s, you may have noticed a slump in your happiness. Perhaps you’re feeling a bit restless, or disappointed in how things turned out.
It’s not depression — and it’s not a mid-life crisis, either — just a sense of discontent and a loss of optimism.
If you’ve known this feeling, you’re not alone — and you could be sitting in the trough of what’s known as the happiness curve, according to Zoe Phelps and Isabella Summerson, from the ABC’s Between the Lines.
They wrote that author Jonathan Rauch noticed a dip in his happiness when he entered his 40s.
“I felt trapped, I felt I hadn’t achieved anything worthwhile,” he says.
“I assumed it would go away, because I was doing spectacularly well. I had plenty of money and the career I’d always wanted and a stable relationship and good health.
“I had nothing to be ungrateful for, but it got worse.”
The feeling dragged on for a few years, and Rauch had no idea what was happening — until he discovered the idea of the happiness curve.
He started researching the U-curve phenomenon, and found it appears in countries all over the world, and even in some animals.
“It seems to be partly wired in,” he says.
Rauch says as we get older, the brain slowly changes to be less focused on ambition and more focused on connections to people.
“[It] is a healthy change, but there’s a nasty transition in the middle,” he says.
We can also be affected by what Rauch calls an ‘expectation gap’.
“When we’re young, we make what economists call a forecasting error. We overestimate how happy we’ll be if we achieve our goals,” he explains.
“That’s logical; that’s nature’s way of inspiring us to achieve our goals. But ambition … keeps moving the goal-posts, so every time you achieve something it says ‘that’s not good enough’.
“After years and years of achieving goals and not being as happy as we expected to be, we conclude that we’ll never be happy.”
Things can only get better
Christina Bryant from the University of Melbourne researches the psychology of ageing, and notes that not all people will feel affected by the happiness curve.
“There would be a lot of people that would actually say mid-life is in fact a relatively stable time in terms of personality and in terms of mental health symptoms,” Associate Professor Bryant says.
“It can also be a time when there is quite a lot of satisfaction for people if they’re reaching the peak of their careers, or seeing their children become independent and so on.
“I think it’s a quite a mixed picture.”
If you are in a dip, there’s some good news.
Just as gradually as your happiness levels drop, Rauch says, you one day begin to feel good about your life again.
“It turns around when you least expect it to,” he says.
And Rauch, who has authored a book on the happiness curve, says “the best is yet to come” — life gets better after 50.
“As we age through later adulthood, positivity actually increases, life satisfaction increases, and we experience less regret and less stress,” he says.
“The emotional peak of life on average is not until the 60s and 70s, and sometimes beyond.”
Associate Professor Bryant says as we age, we “develop cognitive abilities that enable us to deal with life better”.
“We tend to think that from youth to mid-life is a sort of upward trajectory and then after that it kind of goes downhill,” she says.
“But our capacity for more complex thinking keeps on developing right through mid-life, and it’s part of that capacity for more complex thinking that also enables us to have a more nuanced view of life, and be happier and more contented about it.”
How you can help a friend in a rut
There are simple things you can do to make your life easier while you wait for the upward swing in your happiness.
“Don’t let yourself become isolated. Understand that what you’re going through is normal. Talk to people about it,” Rauch says.
He also has some advice for people watching someone who seems unhappy in mid-life.
“Reach out to them, be supportive, don’t mock them. Those jokes about ‘when are you going to get your sports car’ aren’t helpful,” he says.
“They don’t need a doctor either, they don’t need anti-depressants. This is not a mood disorder, this is a contentment disorder.
“It needs friends and support and an understanding society.”