I turned 40 last May, and I’m apparently about to tumble into years of despair. Because, according to friends and colleagues who hit that milestone a few years before I did (not to mention researchers), my “midlife crisis” is right around the corner. But I don’t buy it. Sure, I need at least an hour of meditation with one sock on, one sock off (no joke) and 1.5 (no more, no less) cups of Sleepytime tea to fall asleep, but that’s hardly what I’d call a crisis. iStock Jonathan Rauch, award-winning journalist and author of The Happiness Curve: Why Life Gets Better After 50 also rejects the idea of a midlife crisis, a term coined back in 1965 by psychologist Elliott Jaques. He prefers to call it a slump or, on perhaps less optimistic days, a “constant drizzle of disappointment.” Still pretty bleak sounding if you ask me.
Multiple studies of adults in countries around the world show a U shape on the happiness scale as we age. In fact, according to Rauch, “it turns up so frequently and in so many places that many happiness researchers take it for granted.” The U shape suggests that people feel good in their 20s, then get a bit more miserable in their 30s—until everything bottoms out in the fifth decade. In fact, according to a new study by Dartmouth professor David Blanchflower that examined trends in 132 countries, life’s “peak time for misery” happens around age 47. Ouch. Maybe that’s why my friends would rather say they’re celebrating the 20th anniversary of their 20th birthday than proudly own the Big 4-0.
There is good news, however. Studies by Blanchflower and British researcher Andrew Oswald bear that out. Their findings suggest that well-being “declines steadily (apart from a blip around the mid-20s) until approximately 50; it then rises in a hill-like way up to the age of 70; after that it declines slightly until the age of 90.” Happiness deepens as we age, like a fine wine. But until then—what? Those of us in our 40s are destined to mope around and bide our time until we can get a senior discount? No thank you. Fortunately, University of Pennsylvania researcher Matt Killingsworth has a different point of view. He found that happiness is tied to being present—not fretting about the past or even lusting after retirement.
I decided to set off to find a way to make it through this quote unquote low point without entering crisis mode. There has to be a way to be happy—no matter what the trends suggest—at any age. “THERE HAS TO BE A WAY TO BE HAPPY—NO MATTER WHAT THE TRENDS SUGGEST—AT ANY AGE.” What Is Happiness, Anyway?
Clearly, how a person defines happiness affects their perception of it—and there are myriad definitions to consider, from ancient traditions to modern scholarly ones. In the yoga world, for example, there are at least four types of happiness. Santosha (contentment) implies a sense of delight; being content with what you have, who you are, and where you are in this moment. We’re happiest when we’re not wishing we were better, richer, kinder, or any other kind of different. Sukha (ease or, literally, a good space) is the comfort or sweetness we feel, even in the midst of confusion or turbulent times. For some people, mudita (sympathetic joy) is the hardest of all. It asks us to be joyful for those who are happiest; to be happy for the good fortune of others—even if they have what we wish we had. We experience ananda, the state of being blissfully happy, when we stop trying to find happiness and simply experience it. Yogic scholar Georg Feuerstein once wrote that ananda is “what we experience when our whole body radiates with joyous energy and we feel like embracing everyone and everything.” The Dalai Lama himself says that happiness is mainly having “a sense of deep satisfaction.” All of these definitions are, in the words of Killingsworth, “tied to being present.”
Rauch went with a more scholarly definition in his book. He breaks happiness down into two categories: affective well-being (how you feel today, how often you smile) and evaluative well-being (how you assess your life as a whole). His research looked at the latter: “You might not feel happy today, but you still feel your life is fulfilling and rewarding,” Rauch says.
Although Rauch is a fan of the U curve, which he contends “has been pretty stable over time,” he also believes there will always be outliers. And even within the same shape, he says, the details of the curve, such as where it bends and at what age, vary by country, suggesting there could be some social impact to our well-being. How to Be Happy at Every Age
Even if research shows happiness commonly dips in middle age, that doesn’t mean we can’t be happy at any age.
Linda Sparrowe, co-author of The Woman’s Book of Yoga and Health: A Lifelong Guide to Wellness (with Patricia Walden), believes that each stage of life has its high points on the happiness scale and, alas, its low points, too. Yoga and certain mindful lifestyle practices can maximize the pinnacles and minimize the troughs, she says. While the stages she writes about are fluid—adolescence moving into our 20s; early 40s holding fast to the 30s, the late 40s having more in common with the early 50s, and so forth—Sparrowe agrees that each decade brings something unique to our growth.
Ayurvedic practitioner and yoga teacher trainer Niika Quistgard encourages people to look at doshic patterns as a general map, not an unbreakable fact. “There are generalizations that can help us take a closer look and see if they’re true for us at the time, but we can’t just boilerplate everyone,” Quistgard says. “Life is more complex than that.”
With that in mind, let’s examine the ups and downs—the gifts and challenges—each decade may bring. FFFORN STUDIO STORE/CREATIVE MARKET THE 20S
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