The U-Curve of Happiness

hammocks at ojo calienteToday I turn 53, and it’s one of the happiest birthdays of my life. Last year, 52 was wonderful, too. My worst birthdays? 47 and 50.  I’m sure part of the explanation is what I was doing (or not doing), and with (or without) whom, on those birthdays. But part of it might have been that birthdays 47 and 50 fell near the bottom of what some economists call the U-curve, while 52 and 53 came as I was on its upward curve..

Nearly three years ago (not long after my godawful Big 5-0, though I didn’t read it until today), an article called The Real Roots of Midlife Crisis in The Atlantic summarized some of the research, which suggests that life satisfaction declines from early adulthood through middle age, hitting a low point around the late 40s.

The trough in my own U came right on schedule, starting not long after I turned 46, with the worst of it behind me by the time I was 51. I even wrote a blog post called Welcome to my midlife crisis when I was 50.

Jonathan Rauch, author of the Atlantic article, who pulled out of the trough around age 54, wrote,

Though I still have my share of gloomy days, I find it far easier than I did in my 40s to appreciate what I have, even without writing down lists of good things, as I had to resort to doing a decade ago….For me, after a period when gratitude seemed to have abandoned me, its return feels like a gift.

I can relate completely. I used to write gratitude lists to convince myself that I had no business whining about anything, that my life was great, so be happy already, damn it. Now, I no longer have to force myself to be grateful; I just am.

Granted, spending your birthday at a mineral hot springs with your lively, intelligent, cheerful teenage daughter is a pretty awesome way to spend it, but I think I savored the experience more than I would have been able to five years ago. These days, I find myself enjoying the good things so much more, and letting the bad things go much more easily. If this really is the upward curve of the U, that means it only gets better from here. If so, that’s really cause for gratitude.

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