I turn 49 tomorrow. According to author Jonathon Rauch (The Happiness Curve: Why Life Gets Better After 50), I’m at the bottom of the happiness curve, but things will be on the upswing very soon. He says our 40s are the bottom of the joy trough. Our values change in our 50s to create upward momentum.
Our 40s, not always so peachy
Why are our 40s so rough? He says there is a normal downturn in this decade. We have a tendency to feel disappointment. We’ve been striving and working so hard to achieve and chase our ambitions, but we’re not satisfied. We think we should be happy because we’ve reached a career goal and created a family, but we are not fulfilled like we thought we’d be. We may even start to feel there is something wrong with us because we are not happy even though we have all the external prizes we thought we wanted.
Our 40s could also be the time we take inventory and decide we fall short of our expectations. We have worked hard but we still don’t have the career, marriage or family we envisioned. We achieved a few things but then we saw more goals to aim for and just kept striving. The finish line keeps moving and we begin to doubt we will ever reach it.
Enter midlife crisis
We think we’ll always be unsatisfied. The future seems grim. We blame ourselves, our spouses and our career choices for not making us happy. This is where the mid-life crisis comes in. We leave our jobs and our spouses. We try to leave our old ways of being.
I can relate to much of the 40s questioning, blaming and spiraling down. Jonathon Rauch and I agree this is not what happens to everyone, but studies show there is a tendency toward this way of thinking and behaving.
I did wake up from the decade in my 30s of rushing, career-building and family-creating, to realize I was unfulfilled and not happy. I felt I had lost myself but did not know how to get off the treadmill.
I did blow up most of the foundation my husband and I built. I wanted out of the marriage. I wanted to have a career, not just stay at home minding children and the house. Maybe it was a mid-life crisis. I was quick to blame others and our lifestyle. I thought I should be thrilled to have everything I had, but I wasn’t. I couldn’t see a fulfilling future. I just saw more of the same.
I tried exercise, meditation, guitar lessons, diet changes. Those were positive adjustments but not enough. I now know I was missing what makes our 50s and beyond so rich and worthwhile.
Why our 50s bring contentment
According to Jonathon Rauch and the many studies he quotes in The Happiness Curve, our values change around 50. We focus less on social competition and more on connections and community. These pursuits have smaller short-term gains in happiness but big time payoffs long-term. We find a stable sense of contentedness versus a short-term jolt of excitement. Think of fostering connections as like putting money in the bank. At first the interest gains seem insignificant, but over time, they accumulate and become notable and meaningful.
After our 40s, we start to determine what is truly important to us and pursue those. Core relationships get the attention they’ve been lacking. We don’t want to waste any more time chasing elusive notches in our belt. Our time horizon is shorter. We want to make the most of what we have or go get what really matters.
One thing that helps us rise out of the trough of unhappiness and into the upswing of our 50s is our biology. Scientists have studied the brains of people over 50. Using MRI technology, they discovered that older people have a more positive outlook. They are more responsive to positive stimuli and less reactive to negative stimuli. It is almost like there is now a buffer on emotions and reactions.
I can’t wait for that to kick in for me! I was down in my 40s because I did not have a lot of consistent meaningful connections. I have a mostly positive outlook now because there are more fulfilling relationships in my life, but I’m still working on lessening my reactions to negative stimuli.
What helps get us through the 40s?
Knowing feelings of pessimism and disappointment are normal in this stage of life helps. The problem is most of us are ashamed to admit we are not happy or that we think we are failing. We believe we should be strong and competent by the time we reach our 40s.
We deal with our unhappiness on our own, which only makes the issues worse. Feeling isolated compounds the unhappiness. We need to share with each other. We need social support, friendship and love.
Who helps you untangle?
All of the sharing I did on space2live and brendaknowles.com was my way of getting through the down times in my 40s. Now when coaching clients, I help them sort through all the variables of their well-being. I ask them questions about what they value and what they want. My intention is to make them feel like they have someone on their team. They have someone with them as they navigate unhappy times. I let them know the inner turmoil is normal and that it is possible to untangle all the threads that make up their lives. In short, I give them what I needed when I felt lost.
Not everyone needs or wants a coach, of course, but we all need someone we can talk to and work through the low points of our lives. I encourage you to consider sharing the things that weigh on your mind and heart.
Kickstarting the upswing
It’s easy to compare ourselves to everyone, but connecting with them gives us the boost we truly want. We connect by sharing honestly and by giving our attention. Giving and sharing kickstart that positive outlook we find more naturally in our 50s and older.
How content are/were you in your 40s? Does it get better in our 50s? Where are you with your values?
I’m excited to announce my latest courses on brendaknowles.teachable.com:
If you have wondered why you or your partner drift away from intimacy and togetherness this course will have answers for you. If there is withdrawing or distancing between you and your loved one and you would like understand why, Is It Introversion or Is It Insecure Attachment? will help.
Are you or your partner an introvert? Does he get tired and want to go home after a few hours of socializing? Does she seem happy to be intimate one day and need space the next? Introverts Explained can help you gain understanding about yourself or your partner.