Laura Vanderkam has reviewed a new book by Jonathan Rauch, and the title jumped out at me: The Happiness Curve: Why Life Gets Better After 50 (New York: Thomas Dunne, 2018). Her review for the Manhattan Institute's City Journal demanded some sort of response, and with that in mind, here is some sort of response.
The mid-life crisis is a cliché: balding, paunchy man in red sports car, frantically trying to convince himself that women still find him attractive. Implicit in the word "crisis" is a sudden change. You wake up some day in your forties to realize that you are no longer young. The resulting angst — it's all straight downhill to death from here — nudges people to do crazy things.
I'll cop to "balding" and "paunchy," but I have no compelling reason to seek out s red sports car, and women seldom if ever found me attractive. (And inevitably, the women who caught my eye would just as soon throw it back.) And I was miserable through my thirties and forties, sometimes deservedly so. But even I, mired in this misery for so long, eventually detected an upturn. On my 50th, I wrote:
I have to clean yet another house, sort through the emotions, the neuroses, the random thoughts, find out what's worth keeping and what can be tossed. It's a scary proposition, to say the least. Yet somehow, I'm not particularly scared.
Let's compare that to Mr Rauch's own experience:
In his forties, he had a life his twentysomething self could only dream about. Not only was he working as a journalist and winning awards, he was happily partnered and later married, a relationship largely accepted by neighbors in a way a young gay man growing up decades ago would not have thought possible. So why wasn't he happier? "I felt ashamed of my ingratitude and embarrassed by my dissatisfaction," he writes. He wasn't clinically depressed, just chronically unhappy, a fact that he largely kept to himself. And yet at some point, the fog began to lift. Despite objective reasons to be unhappy — his parents' deaths, his magazine job disappearing — "my obsessive habit of comparing myself with others, always to my own disadvantage, diminished," he writes. He had emerged on the other side of the curve and was able to throw himself into new work and to enjoying relationships.
Not so different, really. I am less likely to compare myself with others than to compare myself with an idealized version of myself, which is bad news right there, since there's no possible way to come close to that ideal. And I did find myself with a diagnosis of clinical depression. Still, I did hold on, and by mid-2015, at the age of 61, I had climbed out from under a mountain of debt and was showing only the occasional sign of age and decrepitude.
And then the next year came injuries, hospitalization, and the end of my life as a relatively self-sufficient person: from then on, I would be unable to walk unassisted, and other problems showed up and wouldn't go away.
With Rauch's mental journey mirrored in larger social statistics, the takeaway is that the midlife slump is "completely normal and natural. Like teething or adolescence, it is a healthy if sometimes painful transition, and it serves a purpose by equipping you for a new stage of life," he writes. As older people become less focused on their own striving, they become more ready to serve society. With people experiencing good health well into their seventies (or later), this is a great opportunity for society to change the narrative of aging: stop glorifying the golf course, and instead make it easier to plug into mentoring and volunteering opportunities.
Which is a Good Thing, for those who have the opportunity. For those of us whose health has already turned irreversibly downward, it's only another reason to cry.
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Copyright © 2018 by Charles G. Hill