Over on Slate last week, Libby Copeland had an interesting article about aging and happiness. In it, she summarized a growing body of research showing that subjective well-being improves considerably after middle-age.
This result is sometimes referred to as the U-Bend, to connote the higher levels of happiness in early and late adulthood, with a dip during middle-age. While the age at which this happiness boost kicks in varies across countries (as early as 35 in Switzerland (Damn them!) and as late as 62 in the Ukraine), the result has held up astonishingly well both within the United States and cross-nationally, occurring on average around the age of 46.
There are a variety of hypotheses floating around out there to explain this persistent age/happiness finding. But most theories seem to come down less on the side of circumstance (e.g. retirement/empty nest/etc.) and more on the side of a change in mind-set which kicks in once we get beyond middle age.
As Copeland summarizes it: “As we age, it appears, we aspire to moderation rather than thrills, we notice the silver lining, we temper our highs and lows, and we seek fulfillment in the moment. With age comes pragmatism—instead of remaking the world, we remake our impressions of it.”
Which makes a lot of sense to me. When you’re young, as Copeland narrates, you shoot for the moon. You experiment a lot and you make a lot of mistakes. After all, you’ve got all the time in the world to figure it out.
But as you age, your time horizons shorten and you prioritize the things you’ve learned that you like. What kind of friends you want to have around you. What career makes sense for you. What you want to do for a hobby.
Which doesn’t mean that this adjustment is painless. To the extent that this happiness boost hinges on lowering one’s aspirations, for example – that’s a lot easier said than done. Indeed, I’d venture to say that “acceptance” is one of the hardest things to come to terms with as a grown-up (which may account for that big happiness dip during mid-life.)
But once you figure out a way to do that – to realize that you probably aren’t going to be the next Beethoven (itself a source of anxiety) – a certain relief sets in as you stop searching and just live.
I’m not there yet. But I do look forward to it. I’ll let you know how it goes.
Image: Old Couple by kayugee via Flickr under a Creative Commons license.