In what seems like an unrelenting year of bad news, the Economist has a lovely and uplifting feature headlined “The U-Bend of Life.”
Although the plumbing metaphor might sound uninviting, in fact the piece is a cheery paean to older age. It explores the surprisingly well-replicated findings that unhappiness peaks in middle age, and that older age seems to bring increasing emotional well-being. The author writes:
[M]ankind is wrong to dread ageing. Life is not a long slow decline from sunlit uplands towards the valley of death. It is, rather, a U-bend.
When people start out on adult life, they are, on average, pretty cheerful. Things go downhill from youth to middle age until they reach a nadir commonly known as the mid-life crisis. So far, so familiar. The surprising part happens after that. Although as people move towards old age they lose things they treasure — vitality, mental sharpness and looks — they also gain what people spend their lives pursuing: happiness.
The article cites supporting research across disciplines, and is spiked with such piquant observations as “Young people will go to cocktail parties because they might meet somebody who will be useful to them in the future, even though nobody I know actually likes going to cocktail parties.” And, from William James, “How pleasant is the day when we give up striving to be young — or slender.”
It’s well worth a read, especially if you are in your 40s, which is apparently life’s peak time for unhappiness.