Of course, the most interesting question, and unfortunately also the hardest question, is: Why is happiness so often U-shaped? Why the common dissatisfaction in middle age? And why the upswing afterward?
Part of the answer likely involves what researchers call selection bias: unhappier people tend to die sooner, removing themselves from the sample. Also, of course, middle age is often a stressful time, burdened with simultaneous demands from jobs, kids, and aging parents. Those explanations don’t seem adequate by themselves, though. I can attest that I experienced the U-curve without dying off in the process; so do other people, as we know from happiness research that follows individuals over time. And recall that the U-curve often emerges after adjusting for other variables in life (children, income, job, marriage), so it is not purely situational.
A common hypothesis, and one that seems right to me, is alluded to by Carstensen and her colleagues in their 2011 paper: “As people age and time horizons grow shorter,” they write, “people invest in what is most important, typically meaningful relationships, and derive increasingly greater satisfaction from these investments.” Midlife is, for many people, a time of recalibration, when they begin to evaluate their lives less in terms of social competition and more in terms of social connectedness. In my 40s, I found I was obsessively comparing my life with other people’s: scoring and judging myself, and counting up the ways in which I had fallen behind in a race. Where was my best seller? My literary masterpiece? Barack Obama was younger than I, and look where he was! In my 50s, like my friend K., I find myself more inclined to prize and enjoy people and relationships, which mercifully seem to be pushing the unwinnable status competition into the background. Also, Carstensen told me, “when the future becomes less distant, more constrained, people focus on the present, and we think that’s better for emotional experience. The goals that are chronically activated in old age are ones about meaning and savoring and living for the moment.” These are exactly the changes that K. and others in my own informal research sample reported.
In my own case, however, what seems most relevant is a change frequently described both in popular lore and in the research literature: for some reason, I became more accepting of my limitations. “Goals, because they’re set in temporal context, change systematically with age,” Carstensen says. “As people perceive the future as increasingly constrained, they set goals that are more realistic and easy to pursue.” For me, the expectation of scaling ever greater heights has faded, and with it my sense of disappointment and failure.
The idea that the expectations gap closes with age has recently received some empirical backing, in the form of fascinating findings by Hannes Schwandt, a young economist at Princeton University’s Center for Health and Wellbeing. He used a German longitudinal survey, with data from 1991 to 2004, that, unusually, asked people about both their current life satisfaction and their expected satisfaction five years hence. That allowed him to compare expectations with subsequent reality for the same individuals over time. To his own surprise, he found the same result regardless of respondents’ economic status, generation, and even whether they lived in western or eastern Germany (two very different cultures): younger people consistently and markedly overestimated how satisfied they would be five years later, while older people underestimated future satisfaction. So youth is a period of perpetual disappointment, and older adulthood is a period of pleasant surprise. What’s more, Schwandt found that in between those two periods, during middle age, people experienced a sort of double whammy: satisfaction with life was declining (that’s the U-curve, which manifested itself clearly), but expectations were also by then declining (in fact, they were declining even faster than satisfaction itself). In other words, middle-aged people tend to feel both disappointed and pessimistic, a recipe for misery. Eventually, however, expectations stop declining. They settle at a lower level than in youth, and reality begins exceeding them. Surprises turn predominantly positive, and life satisfaction swings upward. And the crossover, in Schwandt’s sample, happened about where you would expect: in the 50s.