Book Review: The Happiness Curve: Why Life Gets Better After Midlife by Jonathan Rauch.

Are you in a midlife slump? Is there a general malaise that pervades a lot of your days and you just can’t seem to snap out of it? Do you feel guilty because on the face of it your life is pretty good and you think you should feel more grateful? ‘How long will this feeling last,’ you wonder, ‘will it ever end?’

In his book, The Happiness Curve, author Jonathan Rauch answers these questions and more. He explains that what many of us in midlife experience as a slump is a normal transition like adolescence was. Although it may seem interminable, that dip in happiness is temporary and once we get through it a more positive and fulfilling later life is possible.

The book in a nutshell

The midlife years of an adult are often stressed and unhappy, the author explains that the associated slump we feel is real and shared by millions all over the world. The research shows that there is a U-shaped relationship between life satisfaction and age. Happiness follows a U-shaped curve from a high point in our 20s into a long trough in our 40s. Our youthful optimism undergoes a gradual decline over that period. The trough eventually transitions into an upswing after fifty.

This slump isn’t a midlife crisis, however, but a necessary reassessment of our priorities and desires. As the author puts it:

By shifting priorities away from competition and toward compassion, you can equip yourself with new tools of wisdom and gratitude to head positively into your later years.

Key Takeaways

  • A midlife slump is completely normal and natural even animals like chimpanzees and orangutans experience a similar adjustment period. Like teething or adolescence, it is a healthy if sometimes painful transition, and it serves a purpose by equipping us for a new stage of life. We may feel dissatisfied, but we don’t need to feel too worried about that.
  • To understand the happiness curve, it’s helpful to know that happiness isn’t rational, predictable, or reliably linked to our objective circumstances. Even when the impact of normal stressors like the demands of work, parenting and general busyness are factored out, the midlife dip is still evident.
  • The passage of time itself affects our ability to feel content and grateful. High expectations and excitement in young adulthood gradually decrease over the years to a slump. We feel disappointment and lack of fulfilment in midlife even when we have reason to be satisfied.
  • The midlife dip is really a change in emotional direction, and who we essentially are. As the author describes it:

Our values shift, our expectations recalibrate, our brains reorganize, all in ways that lead to an upturn in late middle age and then to surprising happiness in late adulthood.

  • Society’s pessimistic view of ageing is misleading as many find satisfaction in later life. Research shows that not only does stress decline after fifty but that emotional regulation improves and optimism increases as we age. Although older people perceive negativity like younger people do, they process it differently paying more attention to, and connecting more deeply with, the positive. Such wellbeing-boosting practices include:
    • Living in the present.
    • Taking each day as it comes.
    • Savouring the positive.
    • Dwelling less on the negative.
    • Prioritising the really important people and relationships in life.
  • Social factors have the biggest impact on wellbeing with social support (having someone to count on in challenging times) being the most important. Yet a feature of the midlife feedback trap is that we become less sociable leading to greater discontent and a bigger urge for isolation. Reaching out, therefore, is key in breaking that cycle.
  • Feeling and expressing gratitude in the dip of the happiness curve is more challenging and that’s ok. The good news is it gets easier as we move past the trough into the upside of the curve.

Who this book is for

Perhaps you’re in midlife, stuck in a rut and struggling to feel motivated. Maybe you’re finding it difficult to feel grateful even when you can’t pinpoint why. This book may be what you need.

It will help you to understand why your midlife dissatisfaction isn’t a crisis but a natural and healthy transition. The book will provide advice on how to navigate through the trough of the happiness curve and onto the upcurve.

The book also highlights the importance of society in supporting those who are in the midlife trough and the necessity for a re-education about middle age and ageing in general.

Finally, if you’re not yet in midlife, it will provide a useful guide on what to expect and how to ease your way through it. It can also help you understand the behaviour of those who are currently experiencing its challenges.

Final Thoughts

This is an uplifting book for anyone who is going through midlife, experiences its challenges and nervous about ageing in general. With cutting-edge research, interviews and case studies of ordinary people who have gone through the transition and come out the other side, the book is both informational and inspirational.

That’s not to say that the happiness curve is inevitable for everyone. The author stresses that not everyone will have a slump in their forties and an upturn after that. It’s simply a tendency widely supported by research and there’s a distinct possibility that it will be the case for you.

As modern medicine is extending our life spans, more and more years are being added to that period of life on the happiness upturn. It makes sense to use this gift wisely, learning how best to exploit it and live happier and more fulfilled as we get older.

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