The Surprising Reason Life Might Get Really Hard in Your 40s -- and How It Gets Better

My 40s had to be my unhappiest decade, at least so far. Turning 30, despite all of the negative hype, was really no big deal. What was all the fuss about? I still felt and looked young, heard no biological clock ticking in my ear, finally had a career direction. The hippie-era ethos of, "Don’t trust anyone over 30," had long since passed. My life was far from perfect, but I felt more or less on track.

Turning 40, in contrast, pretty much sucked, though I had what I had always wanted. I’d spent most of my 30s in a blur of pregnancy and breastfeeding, and now I had three cute, healthy kids, a nice husband and work I liked and was reasonably successful at. But if this was the prime of life, why did I feel so trapped and miserable?

There are a lot of clichés about the stages of life—when you’re supposed to be happy and when you’re not—when you're supposed to be fulfilled and when angst-filled. And nothing is as cliché-ridden as the dreaded midlife crisis—the sports cars, the sexual adventures, the restlessness. But is it really a thing? It turns out the midlife crisis may be an actual biological, not merely psychological event. And it’s not what, or necessarily when, you think. But here’s the really good news: the cloud tends to lift in your 50s, often for no good reason at all. The social-scientific term for it is the U-curve. 

In a recent cover story in the Atlantic, Jonathan Rauch detailed his own U-curve, and cited the late writer Donald Richie’s concise description of it. “Midlife crisis begins somewhere in your 40s, when you look at your life and say, ‘Is this all?’ And it ends about 10 years later when you look at your life again and think, ‘Actually, this is pretty good.’”

I buy that. In my 50s, like Rauch, I regained my sense of adventure, optimism and contentment. The U-curve may not fit everyone’s life, and how good you feel at any age depends on lots of external variables. Your 50s can be a terribly stressful time, too, if you’re struggling to make ends meet, are the parent of teenagers in crisis, are taking care of aging parents, etc. But all in all, yep, 50 is pretty good.

In my recent unofficial, deeply unscientific poll, four out of five friends said they were happier in their 50s than they were in their 40s. Granted, it’s hard to separate these vague feelings from the actual circumstances of our lives. I made some real changes in my life at the beginning of my 50s, getting out of an unhappy marriage, meeting a new man who makes me happy, finding work that fulfills me more, moving to a new neighborhood in the city. All of that can put a spring in your step. But as my friend Lawrence argues, the acceptance of mortality that came in his 50s is a lot more peaceful than the rage he felt against aging in his 40s. “I went through six years of recurrent, idiotic panic in my 40s about going bald,” he says. “Now that I am in my 50s, I really don’t care. It feels like in your 50s you stop struggling because you know you’re going to die and you accept it. Pain is just resistance to truth.”

Another friend, Patricia, just feels better and has no idea why. “I'm only eight months in [to my 50s], but I can definitely say with some degree of bewilderment that I've felt more contended this year than I can recall feeling for ages,” she says. “My 40s pretty much relentlessly sucked.”

A third friend, Judi, started her 40s feeling so in control she felt “invincible.” But as the decade wore on, she says, “I felt my body begin to betray me and it caused me to reevaluate much in my life.” Thankfully, relief from the painful period of self-questioning and ill health came along. “Then came 50, and for whatever reason, I just started not to care as much about what others thought about me or perceived to be true,” Judi says. “I am poor, I live away from my children, old friends and family, and yet I am at peace.”

As Rauch suggests, what seems like a crisis can actually be a transition to something better. Once you’re 50, you fully accept that you are no longer young. Maybe you get happier because you feel like you’re at the beginning of something (the rest of your life? old age?) rather than at the end (of your youth).

That there may be something more to all this than a collection of people’s subjective experiences is backed up by research in a field called happiness economics. The U-curve, Rauch recounts, is a pattern that recurs in countries around the world. According to a labor economist named David Blanchflower, who accidentally discovered the U-curve, “Life satisfaction would decline with age for the first couple of decades of adulthood, bottom out somewhere in the 40s or early 50s, and then, until the very last years, increase with age, often (though not always) reaching a higher level than in young adulthood.”

For some, that happiness rebound might coincide with the empty nest. It did for my friend Donna, who has two kids, the youngest a junior in college. She attributes her increased contentment in recent years to the fact that she is out from under the drudgery of child-raising and especially having to cook dinner every day for a family. “I never really liked that,” she says. Having been in an all-too-traditional marriage for 18 years, I can definitely relate.

Development economist Carol Graham, with the Brookings Institution, found a similar pattern of life satisfaction in Latin America, and it was completely unrelated to “outward life circumstances.” Rauch cites an ample amount of research that the U-curve is a worldwide pattern, but the bottom line is this: “If all else is equal, it may be more difficult to feel satisfied with your life in middle age than at other times.”

To quantify that more exactly, two leading researchers have found that, “statistically speaking, going from age 20 to age 45 entails a loss of happiness equivalent to one-third the effect of involuntary unemployment.” And just to throw one more piece of evidence on the pile— evidence that something truly biological may be going on—a similar pattern has been found among captive monkeys and orangutans. “The apes’ well-being bottomed out at ages comparable to, in people, to between 45 and 50,” Rauch writes.

I suspect there is something to what my friend Lawrence says, that the U-curve is related to acceptance and mortality. When you realize you don’t have unlimited time, you get a little more grateful for what you have. I’m also a great believer in the secret to happiness being somewhat related to lowered expectations. The disappointments of youth can give way to the pleasant surprises of older adulthood. I certainly never expected to find myself falling in love again in my 50s. Another way of putting all of this is that the expectations gap starts to close with age. How many times can you beat yourself up about the fact that most of the really accomplished people in the world, including the president of the United States, are younger than you are?

There is still more good news, which is that the U-curve just keeps going up, as long as you stay healthy. With increased age comes more acceptance and calm and more emotional regulation, also known by that old-fashioned term, wisdom.

I have one outlier friend, Karen, who reports feeling more stressed and dissatisfied in her 50s than in her excitement-filled 40s. (She moved to Rome, the lucky duck!) I’m just going to consider her a late bloomer, and reassure her that eventually, things really do turn around and get better.

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