The Good Fight
Jonathan Rauch on Why Many People Are Unhappy in Middle Age (and How Life Gets Better After Fifty)

Jonathan Rauch on Why Many People Are Unhappy in Middle Age (and How Life Gets Better After Fifty)

Yascha Mounk and Jonathan Rauch discuss how the natural aging process can determine life satisfaction.

Jonathan Rauch is a senior fellow in the Governance Studies program at the Brookings Institution, a member of the Persuasion Board of Advisors, and the author of books including The Constitution of Knowledge: A Defense of Truth and The Happiness Curve: Why Life Gets Better After 50.

In this week’s conversation, Yascha Mounk and Jonathan Rauch discuss how our sense of satisfaction with life is age-related in ways that are often independent of our objective circumstances; the academic research showing that happiness across one’s lifetime often resembles a U-shaped curve; and how we can better align societal practices to facilitate this midlife transition (and better utilize the assets of old age).

Yascha Mounk: I admire you as a writer, but there's one book of yours that I sort of stumbled across again recently which I found to be deeply insightful and also personally meaningful, and that is The Happiness Curve.

How did you come to write this book? And how did you come to think about the kind of shape that people's trajectories of life satisfaction and happiness tend to have over the course of our lives?

Jonathan Rauch: This is a very personal book. I am someone who's had an incredibly fortunate life, just incredibly fortunate. Yet, around the time I turned 40, I began noticing a kind of persistent sense of disappointment and discontent. And I didn't know why. I assumed it would go away, because it didn't match with the objective circumstances of my life. But it only got worse. And then it magnified because I began feeling ungrateful, which is a terrible way to feel if you're the luckiest person on the planet. And that compounded it and I began to tailspin. And the result was not a depression. I didn't feel a lack of affect; I had no trouble getting up in the morning and doing things. But I would hear these voices in the morning (it was especially bad in the morning) which said I was wasting my life, that I hadn't accomplished anything meaningful, that I had to change up everything. 

Now, I knew that this was crazy. But I also knew it was out of control when I turned 45 years old, and right around my birthday, I won the National Magazine Award, which is the magazine industry's equivalent of the Pulitzer. That finally gave me the sense of fulfillment and contentment that I was missing—for about 10 days. And then I went right back to “I've accomplished nothing, I've got to throw it all away.” This was deeply puzzling and disturbing. A few years later, that began to lift as I entered my early 50s, even though things started going wrong: my father started to die, I lost my jobs and things like that. Thanks to an economist friend, I stumbled across this new literature on what's called the U-shaped well-being curve (what we're calling today, the happiness curve). And once I looked into this a little, I realized that it applied directly to me and to millions of other people. It turns out that our sense of satisfaction with life is age-related in ways that are independent, often, of our objective circumstances, and that just understanding that can reduce the symptoms. That's when I realized I needed to write about this.

Mounk: One of the things that you do that's really clarifying for me in the book is to distinguish between the bottom of the U curve (the moment that tends to be in your 40s when, statistically, you're least likely to say that you have life satisfaction) from the long-standing cultural trope of the “midlife crisis.” These are not the same thing. How are they not the same thing?

Rauch: Well, they're related. But first of all, to clarify, what we're talking about here is life satisfaction. That's very different from mood or affect; you measure mood or affect by asking people questions like, “How often did you smile today? How much stress do you feel?” You ask about life satisfaction by asking questions like on a scale of one to ten, where ten is the most fulfilling life you could have? And it turns out that, over the long term, satisfaction with life is more important than mood. And when satisfaction with life begins to fall apart, and you think your life isn't worth much, things get really bad. So the idea of midlife crisis has some fundamental basis in reality, which is, statistically speaking (your mileage will vary, of course), on average, approximately age 47, when life satisfaction tends to ebb to its lowest. And that can sometimes result in a crisis. That is people sometimes make mistakes in that period of life, because they don't understand that what's driving this is part of the natural aging process. It's not pathological. If you manage it, it's actually rewarding. There's a payoff. But sometimes people throw their jobs away, their marriages, they make big mistakes. And it can become a crisis. But usually it doesn't. And the problem with the crisis framing is two-fold. First, it's not a crisis. It's normal, natural and healthy. If properly managed, it's part of our growing process. And second, we get this stigma which I experienced. We've developed this social story about midlife which is deeply unhelpful at a particularly vulnerable time.

Mounk: What is the evidence that this is a profound biological program? Some people I've spoken to about this (and I've bored a lot of people by talking about this quite a bit since I've read the book) say, “Well, isn't that something to do with what life is like in the United States today? Or isn't this something to do with the fact that your 40s are probably the moment when you're likely to have young kids, but perhaps also a lot of responsibility in the workplace, parents who are starting to age, and so on. Isn't this just something about the fact that a lot of people end up with all of these commitments in their 40s and become overwhelmed?” How much is this dependent on those kinds of circumstances? 

Rauch: Well, this is maybe one of the hardest things for me to get my mind around when I've ventured into this field. We can use a simple formula. According to psychologists, a good way to think about how happy we are, how satisfied with our lives we are at any given time, would be “happiness equals ‘s’ plus ‘c’ plus ‘v.’” ‘S’ is your emotional setpoint. That's mostly genetic. ‘C’ is your life circumstances: are you rich, poor, healthy, sick? And ‘v’ is your volitional choices, the things that we control. And all of those things affect our state of well-being at any given time in a mix that would be impossible even in principle to disentangle. And some of those things do result in additional stress in midlife. For example, you may be taking care of elderly parent while you're also struggling with young kids. But the way that formula, it turns out, actually needs to be read is you add a fourth element and that's ‘t,’ for time or age. It turns out that the aging process is an independent variable of all those other things. For reasons we can discuss, the aging process itself makes it more and more challenging to feel satisfied with life as you get into your 30s and then on into your 40s. And then it flips around starting in the 50s, usually, and the aging process then makes it easier to feel content with your life. At first, you're swimming against the current, then you're swimming with the current. And that's independent of life circumstances. Well, how do we know that? One reason is that the U-shaped happiness curve adjusts for all those other things. It's got millions and millions of data points from something like 139 countries around the world. And it's easy to control for things like education, income, health, children, employment, and so forth. Once you control for all the things, that's when you see the curve, it's what's left over. It's kind of the background radiation of happiness. 

Another reason we know that this is something pretty fundamental—this is what really got my attention and decided for me that this had to be a book: in 2012, they looked at chimps and orangutans in four different places and discovered the same pattern. It turns out that researchers very closely monitor the emotional state of their primates (are they eating, and so on). And it turns out, it's the same pattern, which leads people to think that something pretty deep and psychological and fundamental is going on here. The piece that throws people off (and that threw me off) is you're going to notice that undercurrent, that time element, the most when everything else in your life is stable. If you get a cancer diagnosis, of course (or a Nobel Prize), your life satisfaction is going to take a hit. What happened to me is that things were going consistently great, which meant it was very easy for me to feel the effect of time—first working against me, then for me.

Mounk: There are two pieces of evidence that really convinced me of the underlying thesis. And the first is that this is now a pretty developed research program in economics and other fields and vast, sophisticated statistical controls which make the U-curve more visible. Sometimes it's visible with the naked eye even before those controls, but it's precisely when you control for having kids and all those kinds of circumstances that the U-curve is clearest.

Rauch: And men the same as women, by the way. There's no sex or gender difference.

Mounk: And the evidence from primates was just fascinating to me; the fact that researchers who evaluated the primates found a similar pattern really does suggest that it's some kind of biological program in a way that's sort of a little hard to refute. 

I think there is something similar that I was feeling that, perhaps, made the book meaningful and personal to me, which is that I've also been very lucky in terms of my professional success and standing and I have great friends in the world and I feel, in general, quite fulfilled. And I'm also somebody whose personal psychological setpoint is probably pretty high. And yet I have found myself feeling less easily satisfied in a broader sense. Somehow, I'm not as naturally joyful as I was five or ten years ago, I'm not as easily satisfied. And you start to question your narrative about yourself: I thought I was this person who had a high psychological setpoint, who's pretty happy, and, suddenly, I no longer feel like that. Is there something wrong with me? Am I losing myself in a certain kind of way? And that's why I've recommended this book to friends. Because just knowing about this objective research has actually been calming in that sense, because you start to understand it's not that I'm losing myself, it's not that some natural talent I had for life satisfaction or happiness somehow has dissipated. I'm going through a biological program.

Rauch: This is such an important point, there's a moral element to the “midlife slump.” And I experienced it too, which is, I identified as someone who was grateful, and I view gratitude for good things as a moral duty. And I also viewed myself as someone who's basically fundamentally pretty upbeat. I have my bad days. And what you just described is exactly what happened to me, which is that this continued sense of dissatisfaction (it was like a gray drizzle in the background by itself, but it was compounded by “Oh, my God, I'm doomed to be permanently grouchy and discontented. And maybe my gratitude will never return. Maybe this is now who I am. And I don't really like this person as much.”) begins to take on a moral element and tailspin. 

There's some really weird and fascinating discoveries that go along with this branch of science. Possibly the weirdest is that midlife malaise is very often literally about nothing. Now that's very counterintuitive, because we are programmed: if we feel unhappy, we look around ourselves for what's causing that, get rid of it and change it. That's a good evolutionary instinct. But here's what seems to happen: in our 20s we set out in life, for good evolutionary reasons, with very high expectations that if we increase our status in life, if we get the things we want (the good job, that rise in career, the house, the kids, the spouse) that that will make us feel fulfilled. That drives us forward, that kind of ambition. But of course, ambition is a trickster, because it keeps moving the goalposts. And that means that our expectations keep being defeated, even though we're meeting our goals. What happens over time, once you're 35, 38, 40, and you've been continually disappointed—not because there's anything wrong with your life, but because you're disappointed with the happiness that that has brought you—you start feeling like nothing will ever make you happy: “I'm just on a treadmill forever.” And that excites those feelings of disappointment. This doesn't require any setbacks in life to happen. All that needs to happen is the forecasting error of overestimating how much ambition will bring us. There are a couple of reasons it turns around. But one of the big reasons is realism. Just going through this process makes us readjust our expectations about how much life satisfaction we will get from climbing the greasy pole for that next increment of money or status or relationships. 

You think realism would be depressing, because those high expectations go down. In fact, it's the other way around: that realism helps us be more satisfied with what we actually can achieve. And at the same time, a parallel process is that, as we age, we begin to recalibrate the ambitions we feel away from social competition and achievement and toward building relationships, lasting bonds, and friendships—maybe it's the grandkids or mentoring. You want to contribute and give back. And it turns out that those are durable ways to increase life satisfaction, they're not elusive. So as we shift into that stage of life, we get a double whammy. First, we’re more realistic, so the expectation gap has closed. And second, now we're focusing more on things that are less ephemeral. The third thing that happens, by the way, is that our brains change, they actually rewire with age in ways that make us less reactive, less volatile, and less subjected to depression and dissatisfaction.

Mounk: I want to talk to you a little bit about this transition from caring about forms of external success to other forms of satisfaction. I can see how that can start to emerge at that stage of life. If you've been lucky, and you've been able to accomplish some of the things that you've set out to do, you start to realize that they, in themselves, are not happiness or satisfaction-giving (or at least not fully so). That doesn't mean that you'd no longer want to pursue them, but it means that perhaps you rebalance your portfolio a little bit toward caring about other things. 

When people are noticing a little bit of that dissatisfaction, what kind of choices can they make to fight against the undertow and make it a little bit easier to compensate for that natural tendency to feel less satisfied?

Rauch: The first is normalization: understand there's nothing wrong with you. And that in itself turns out to be very helpful. It's not a whole solution, and nothing is. Frankly, if someone could offer me a solution and make this transition go away, I would reject it. What we haven't yet talked about is the payoff at the other end of all this. This isn’t the most pleasant part of the growth process, but you don't want to skip it; you want to get through it in a way that's the least disruptive. That's why I wrote the book, actually. I would have been so much better off if I had just been able to understand that there was nothing wrong with me. I think we talked about making transitions, yes, but doing them in a stepwise, logical way—sharing with others, not being isolated, falling back on your friends, staying present. 

This kind of midlife dissatisfaction, it's kind of a time syndrome, right? Because you're disappointed in the past, and that makes you pessimistic about the future. And then those things become a spiral and work against each other. So one thing that turns out to be helpful for a lot of reasons is to stay in the present, try not to dwell on the past and what you have or haven't accomplished, or what the future may or may not bring. Try to think about today. What one thing can I do today to make my life or someone else's life a little better? It sounds small, but there's some deep wisdom in interrupting those mental cycles. And I always tell people, one of the most important things you can do is just wait. It's just part of life, it's not fun, but it's just helpful to know this is not the new you. This is not going to define you for the rest of your life. In fact, there's a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. And that, to me, is the most surprising element of all of this research: what happens at the upswing of the U-curve, which almost nobody knows about, or even believes.

Mounk: You've teased the upswing of the U-curve, let’s talk about it. Part of the implicit metaphor is that there's a downward slope, then you're at the bottom, and then you're on the upward slope and things start to actually get better. 

One of the things that's really striking about the data is that, in most countries, including the United States, people end up being more satisfied with life, and happier overall, in their 60s and 70s, not just compared to their 40s but also their 20s and 30s. These can be challenging decades, where people's health can start to decline, where their parents tend to die. And, yet, people tend to feel more satisfied in those decades than in their early adulthood. What's the evidence for that for people who are skeptical of this? How do we know that this is really the case? 

Rauch: The evidence is absolutely voluminous. I was astonished because reality, in this case, is so at odds with the stereotype of aging, which is that we get depressed, dismayed, disappointed and decrepit, and then we die. And that, in turn, reflects back to midlife and makes it harder in midlife because we assume “Okay, I'm 50, I'm not happy now. And now it's only going to get worse from here.” Then we get even more pessimistic. But on virtually every measure, study after study, all over the world, shows that the stereotype of aging is incorrect; it turns out that aging makes people more emotionally resilient, more emotionally stable, they're less likely to be swayed by very strong emotions. You can actually measure this in the brain: you put people of different ages in fMRI machines and give them stimuli. Older people are more prone to look at the bright side and less prone to dwell on the negative. They have strong reactions to things, but storms tend to pass more quickly. Given a bad situation like a health or financial shock, older people will react to that somewhat less. The aging process actually provides a buffer. I found this in my interviews—consistently, the older people got, the more they said they felt satisfied. I interviewed a 93-year-old cancer patient. I didn't know it (maybe she did), but she was going to die the next year. She said she wouldn't go back; she had reached a level of contentment that surprised her every day. This is well established. It's not even controversial in the field of gerontology. Yet it's completely divorced from the cultural message we send, which is that aging is terrible. Sure, there are bad things about aging, there are bad things about any stage in life. But if we can battle that stereotype, that's going to backfill through the earlier years in life and make all the rest of it easier to cope with. 

The least impactful, yet, I think, most interesting aspect of the book is the science of wisdom. Age does not guarantee that you'll be wise: wisdom is rare at any age. But it does make it easier because, as you age, you get more of the tools that are needed for wisdom. Those are things like self-transcendence, the ability to see yourself from the outside, understanding how to navigate complicated social situations and conflicts in ways that are not disruptive, a sense of balance in life, a sense of proportion. Wisdom is not the same as intelligence, IQ, experience, expertise, or knowledge. It's its own thing. It's measurable. And we get more tools as we age. That's good not only for us but for all the people around us.

Mounk: We've started to talk a little bit about wisdom, the ability to make wise choices and have a wise view of the world. One of the striking things in your book is the material about how people's priorities switch and change when they feel that they don't have much time, and how they prioritize different kinds of human relationships, and so on. 

What are some of the choices that people tend to make as they enter their 50s, 60s and 70s that seem to help them achieve those higher levels of satisfaction?

Rauch: The evidence is that we tend to do some pruning as we get older. In our younger years, we tend to accumulate a lot of social contacts. We really want to build that Rolodex, and we just want to gather in all of these social resources. As we get later on in life, we're ready to let some of that fall away and to invest in the relationships and the individuals who really mean the most to us. And that it turns out is good for us. 

Another is that we get more interested in giving back, other things being equal. As we get older, this seems to be something deeply wired. It has to do with what's been called the “grandmother hypothesis,” which you may have heard of. But it seems like the reason that nature keeps humans around past the age where we can breed is because we're useful for others. We're useful to our kids and our grandkids and our communities. Only a few species of animals don't die once they're past reproductive age, and certain types of whales are among those: it turns out that having the elders in their pods actually increases the survival odds of everyone else in the pod. So we become more attuned to others, and we find more ways to be helpful. That's good for us. It's good for them. And then there's all the brain changes which I just alluded to. Older people will react less strongly to negative emotional reactions than younger people, they're actually less likely to be depressed. So far, I've been a textbook example of the U curve. I'd say my bottom was about age 47, which is the statistical bottom. My 50s were a gradual but steady improvement. My 60s have been the best decade yet. I'm 63. It's just so much easier to feel good about life. I don't even know why. At some level it just is. One thing is the change in the nature of my ambition. It has become a lot easier for me to accept that I do what I do. And I do it pretty well. But I will never be George Orwell. And I will never be Mark Twain. The literary ambitions that I had when I was younger, to write great, beautiful prose, won't happen. And my younger self would have said that dropping those ambitions was kind of disappointing and sad. But I don't experience it that way. I experience it almost like setting down a heavy backpack.

There's certainly been things in the objective world that disappoint me. It annoys me that I have never been on The New York Times Best Seller list. One week is all it takes, and a lot of people have, for books that I think are not as good. That rubbed me kind of raw in my 40s. Now I've kind of come to accept that my influence will be measured in a different way. And that's pretty darn good. So, in all those ways, it just feels easier to both accept and savor the life I have than it used to be. And it's not because my life is so much better. My life has always been good. It's just because some of this drive to compete, to achieve, to always be better, to be the person I thought I would be—that's just kind of melted away. Not entirely. I'm still ambitious. I'm working on an ambitious book right now. But at some level, is it the end of the world?

My father was someone who had rages: he was emotionally abusive in his 30s and 40s. And he had a lot of stresses and a bad divorce and all kinds of reasons for that. But that faded away as he got older and we became very close. And I once asked him what had changed, and he said, “I stopped having five dollar reactions to five cent provocations.”

Mounk: What is the takeaway for people who are interested in public policy and our cultural and social life, who may not be experiencing this, or who may want a kind of more objective payoff from this conversation? What do you think we should change in our culture, in the way we think about midlife, happiness, and life satisfaction?

Rauch: “How we think about it” is a key phrase. There are a couple of dimensions to this. This is where I really become evangelical because I think the most important takeaway of my book and this work is that it should not, and cannot, be up to individuals to get through this phenomenon of midlife malaise on their own. You wouldn't ask a teenager to get through adolescence and the changes it brings, the reorientations, without tons of social support—things like ceremonies and rituals that mark the way, guidance from people like counselors and parents, and structures like clubs, activities, churches and the many things that guide us. We leave people on their own to flail their way through midlife with virtually no help and a social narrative that's completely backwards. The social narrative is: “This is the peak of your life, you're the master of your family, your competence and physical capacity are at their highest levels. If you're not happy now, you never will be, and it's your fault.” Everything about that sentence is incorrect and all of it is unhelpful. 

We need a social retuning. Start with ageism: the general assumption that old people are decrepit, that they are not creative, that they are not entrepreneurial, that they are slow learners—none of that is true. Once again, the evidence on this is very clear. There is actually a larger proportion of entrepreneurial people in their 50s than in their 20s, according to studies by the Kauffman Foundation. It turns out that, although old people are not always as adaptable as younger people, when you put them with younger people in groups, they make those younger people more productive. The devaluing of age as a phenomenon of decline and decay is not only wrong but very harmful. Age discrimination is one of the most pervasive in the world and still has not been addressed in America. That's something that needs to change.

We need to change the structure of the workplace and retirement. Retirement is still built roughly on the New Deal model in which people drop dead, more or less, at age 65. But people are now living into their 80s. It's going to continue to increase. We as a species, especially in the rich world, are getting the greatest single gift in the entire history of humanity, bar none; and that is, depending how you count it, anywhere from five to fifteen additional healthy years in the most pro-social, happy time of life, which is late adulthood. What to our grandparents was old age (in their 60s, getting ready to drop dead) is the time now when we can launch new careers, find ways to help, mentor or coach, withdraw from those hard greasy pole jobs where we’re supporting our kids and reinvest in our communities and give back. And we can do that now until well into our 80s, in many cases. Why are we not harnessing that talent? It is good for those individuals. It is good for society. Throwing all of that away by saying “when you're 65, you retire, you fall off a cliff, the workplace has very little use for you” is a terrible policy. We need to change the educational structure so that it's easier to go back to school, for example, in midlife, when people are getting ready to think through their new values, their retooling. And we should have gap years as a routine matter for people in their 40s and 50s. We should allow taking a year or two out of Social Security to go back to school and learn something new for the next stage in your life. We need to destigmatize counseling. We need workplaces that, instead of throwing away older talent, have more gradual off-ramps that shift people into jobs where they can do more work with others. 

All of these things I'm describing are ways to change the social context and the social narrative so that instead of having society be at war with the aging process, it's in tune with the aging process. And then that backflows, in turn, toward the individual having a more successful and easy transition because society is now supporting it.

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