The Happiness Curve: Why Life Gets Better After 50

The Happiness Curve: Why Life Gets Better After 50

by Jonathan Rauch


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"In this warm, wise, and witty overview, Jonathan Rauch combines evidence and experience to show his fellow adults that the best is yet to come.” Steven Pinker, bestselling author of Enlightenment Now

This book will change your life by showing you how life changes.

Why does happiness get harder in your 40s? Why do you feel in a slump when you’re successful? Where does this malaise come from? And, most importantly, will it ever end?

Drawing on cutting-edge research, award-winning journalist Jonathan Rauch answers all these questions. He shows that from our 20s into our 40s, happiness follows a U-shaped trajectory, a “happiness curve,” declining from the optimism of youth into what’s often a long, low slump in middle age, before starting to rise again in our 50s.

This isn’t a midlife crisis, though. Rauch reveals that this slump is instead a natural stage of life—and an essential one. By shifting priorities away from competition and toward compassion, it equips you with new tools for wisdom and gratitude to win the third period of life.

And Rauch can testify to this personally because it was his own slump, despite acclaim as a journalist and commentator that compelled him to investigate the happiness curve. His own story and the stories of many others from all walks of life—from a steelworker and a limo driver to a telecoms executive and a philanthropist—show how the ordeal of midlife malaise reboots our values and even our brains for a rebirth of gratitude.

Full of insights and data and featuring many ways to endure the slump and avoid its perils and traps, The Happiness Curve doesn’t just show you the dark forest of midlife, it helps you find a path through the trees. It also demonstrates how we can—and why we must—do more to help each other through the woods. Midlife is a journey we mustn’t walk alone.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781250080912
Publisher: Picador
Publication date: 05/07/2019
Pages: 272
Sales rank: 382,655
Product dimensions: 5.61(w) x 8.27(h) x 0.78(d)

About the Author

JONATHAN RAUCH, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, is the author of several books and many articles on public policy, culture, and government. A recipient of the 2005 National Magazine Award, he’s a contributing editor of The Atlantic. He has also written for The New Republic, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post, among many other publications. He lives with his husband in Washington, DC.

Read an Excerpt



Thomas Cole's journey — and mine

Karl is forty-five years old. He is a successful professional who works with a nonprofit organization in a major American city. He has a PhD, two kids, and an okay, though not perfect, marriage. He is friendly, personable, approachable. Mostly, he is pleased with the way his life has turned out. Middle height, brown hair, not someone you would notice on the street, except maybe for his partiality to skinny-brim fedoras. A nice guy.

Like a lot of people, he got off to an exciting start in his twenties. Finished graduate school. Moved to New York City, a whirlwind for a Midwestern boy. Wild, free, energetic are words he uses to recall that period. "Staying out all night. Getting laid left and right."

His thirties brought responsibility, then predictability. Graduate school ended, the search for a job began; he split painfully with a bohemian, fascinating, mercurial girlfriend. "It was the end of an era." His next girlfriend was more sober, solid. At age thirty-three, Karl had a good job at a government agency; at thirty-four, he married; at thirty-six, they had their first child, and a second followed when he was thirty-nine. After his twenties, responsibility was a jolt, but he adjusted well: "For a long time I embraced it. It was kind of fun feeling like a grown-up doing the things I was supposed to do."

But then the complexion of his life began to change. Not the external circumstances: everything was going well. Something else seemed wrong. That story about being a grown-up, hitting all the marks: "After a while it ceases to be very persuasive, and you begin to say, 'Oh, man, all this is, it's fuckin' work.'"

Karl didn't have time for a midlife crisis; by the age of forty he had two young kids and a brand-new baby. "The circumstances sort of pushed off whatever reckoning I'd have to do." But only temporarily. "It felt like my life was for the most part either going to a job where I was increasingly unsatisfied, or it was going home and changing diapers and doing more work." He applied for higher-up, managerial jobs. Then he switched jobs altogether, leaving the government to launch a new project at a nonprofit. Giving up tenure at one of the world's few really secure employers was a risk, but he felt he needed change. "It's helped a bit. But quite frankly I think what I'd really love to do is take off to someplace in Europe for a while by myself." He won't run away, of course; he's not the type. "It's been more of a grabbing freedom at the margins."

Karl isn't depressed, at least not in any clinical or medical sense. He is a vibrant, fully functional individual who is, in many ways that count, living his dream. No, not depressed: dissatisfied. And dissatisfied about being dissatisfied. And, he says, scared.

For this book, I gave scores of people a questionnaire about their satisfaction in life, both in the present and at earlier ages. I asked them to rate their life satisfaction in each decade of life on a scale of zero to ten, and I also asked for a few words or phrases to describe each decade. Karl described his forties with the words confused, searching, scared.

I ask him: "Why 'scared'?" He pauses, draws breath. What he's going through makes no sense. If his life were rotten, he would understand. But he has the things he wanted. He has more than he wanted, or more than he thought he wanted. "Am I losing my mind? How am I going to get out of this? The feeling of being lost, for a type-A, overtly successful, highly intelligent human being — to find yourself completely at sea, and not knowing where port is, and whether you're going to get there ..." He trails off.

I ask if he has considered going the medical route: therapy, medication? That might be necessary or valuable at some point, he replies, but it doesn't feel relevant now. Especially not the pharmaceutical route. I think I understand why: when I talk to Karl, I see no mental illness or instability or dysfunction. The disease model doesn't seem to fit.

"Whom do you talk to about all this?" Another pause. "I have one dear friend who I've brought it up with. Otherwise, nobody. You."

"Not your wife?"

"I don't know how much she would actually get it." Besides, he'd risk triggering alarm and disruption. "It would be a shitstorm."


"It feels conceited to bring it up with them. I come from a pretty humble background in Pennsylvania. They'd just kind of look at me and say, 'Jesus, you've got it all. What are you bitching about?' I know people who've got cancer in their families." Midlife crisis "is almost a punch line. Who wants to bring it up and feel like you're walking into a joke? And it's also fundamentally so irrational. Am I hungry? No. I have fine clothes on my back; a beautiful office; way more freedom than almost anyone who has a job has. Beautiful home. Good health. So what the hell am I complaining about?"

In the sentence that begins, "I'm dissatisfied with my life right now because," there is nothing after the because.

* * *

Dominic is a little older than Karl: fifty, rather than forty-five. Other than that, the two have a lot in common. They work in related fields, travel in overlapping social circles, and are acquainted professionally. They share salt-of-the-earth backgrounds: Dominic grew up on a rural farm. They both had exciting, eventful twenties, though Dominic's were not as bohemian as Karl's. Dominic married young, then took degrees from two of the world's most prestigious institutions (one abroad), then worked in Congress.

Dominic's thirties, like Karl's, brought responsibility and predictability. He describes that period as goal-oriented, though unlike Karl he landed in a role he actively disliked. He established himself in a high-pressure business job, one which provided a handsome salary, but at the cost of seventy-hour workweeks. "I had a growing sense of disconnect between the goals that were in front of me and what I felt was inspiring or valuable to me. I was working very hard and was adept at what I was doing but didn't feel good about myself for doing it."

Things came to a head for Dominic soon after he turned forty. He realized he would not make partner without taking on assignments that were even less to his liking. So, much as Karl did in his early forties, he made a jump into the nonprofit world. "I loved the clients, I loved the colleagues; the cynicism that had built up in me completely dissipated." Professionally, he was in a good place.

Still, he felt discontent. "In my forties, my wife and I grappled with, Well, things haven't turned out the way we expected. I realized that my professional prospects — and so much of my identity was wrapped up in my work — likely aren't going to change. By any measure I was successful, and there weren't any particular ambitions I had that weren't being fulfilled. But I began to observe that I just had a friend win a MacArthur Award, and a friend who was confirmed as a federal judge. You start to see peers assume positions and you realize that my career pathway is not going to lead me to that kind of outcome. There was in the early forties some gnashing of teeth over that."

When I ask Dominic to characterize his forties, he uses the adjective stressed and rates his life satisfaction as relatively low. But when I ask him to characterize his life right now, at fifty, he uses the word appreciative and rates his life satisfaction at nine out of a possible ten.

"Why?" I ask.

"In the late forties there was kind of a reappreciation of what I had done and where I was." He found himself circling back to the values of his childhood on the farm, values centered on sturdy relationships and worthwhile work. "I came to appreciate that the life or the marriage or the employment are just such incredible assets. Try as I might have, I haven't fully screwed those up."

"Yes," I say. "But why? What brought about your rebirth of gratitude?"

"That's a good question. I think there's a spiritual dimension to it. A spiritual maturity. Less of a self-centered or self-absorbed outlook on life. I came to appreciate that the best is the enemy of the good. There was an awareness that the life I had didn't play out exactly as I imagined, but was still pretty good. I would describe it as a sense of feeling gratitude for where we're at.

"What's interesting is that by any objective measure things haven't changed all that much. We're dealing with a lot of the same issues. Our kids are facing some real challenges. I like my work, but there are aspects that don't speak to me as much as prior forms of employment. So it's not that I find myself in new external circumstances. I don't know if it's a combination of expecting less or appreciating more."

He reflects for a moment, then adds: "I guess I'm expecting less and appreciating more."

Dominic doesn't know precisely what changed to make him feel more grateful. He only knows that his nagging sense of disappointment is diminishing. The closest he comes to an explanation is to venture that, after years of defining accomplishment in the language of competition, achievement, and keeping score, he is opening up to new sources of satisfaction.

"Like what?" I ask.

The other day, he was home with his eleven-year-old daughter, working on his laptop and trying to focus on the task at hand, when she announced she wanted to paint his toenails. "I said, 'No, I don't want painted toenails.'" And then, after a moment, he heard himself, somewhat to his own surprise, change his mind. "So right now, I'm going around with a smiley face on my big toenail."

Like that.

* * *

In November 1828, almost two centuries before my conversations with Karl and Dominic, a young man of twenty-seven, on the cusp of a storied career as the founding father of American landscape painting, wrote to a friend about his own dissatisfaction. Having come out of nowhere from a working-class background, Thomas Cole was experiencing the first flush of lifelong success; he had already been elected a founding member of the National Academy of Design. But he wanted to be, he wrote, more than just a painter of leaves and pretty scenes. He hoped to make paintings that teach: "I still look forward with hope to the time when I shall be able to produce pictures that shall affect the mind of the beholder like the works of a great poet — that shall elevate the imagination and produce a happy moral effect."

In 1839, in his late thirties, Cole received a commission for a series of four paintings called The Voyage of Life. "I work at it 'con amore,'" he wrote, "and hope to make it the finest work I have executed." His hopes were not disappointed. First exhibited in 1840, The Voyage of Life was greeted with critical and public acclaim, proving to be Cole's most popular and durable work and more than fulfilling his ambition to tell elevating stories with art.

The paintings are imposingly large; including their frames, they are more than seven feet long and five feet high. That alone is enough to ensure they make an impression. They are also meticulously detailed. Inspect them up close and the trees seem to sprout real leaves, the rocks real crags. The palette is rich, almost phantasmagorical, and the contrasts bold. Years before the magic of computer-generated graphics and video games, Cole created an immersive otherworld. In it, he tells a story.

The voyage begins, in the first painting, with Childhood. The scene here is all promise, all joy. From a craggy cave at the left of the picture, a river emerges. On it glides a gilded boat, whose passenger is a joyful baby, delighted at having materialized from the darkness of preexistence into an Eden of dawning sensation. Behind the child in the boat, holding the tiller and hovering within close reach, like an attentive parent, stands the traveler's guardian angel. Infancy, for Cole, is a time of untroubled security and innocent wonder. The prow of the boat is decorated with the figurehead of a golden angel, holding up before her an hourglass. The voyage, we are reminded, is through time.

The second painting, Youth, is the lightest, the airiest, the loveliest of the four, a scene of magical beauty and charm. The river is placid, the banks lush with grass and trees, the sky azure and cloudless. The infant is now a young man in the first blush of adulthood, his cheeks still smooth. Now he steers the boat himself, but his guardian angel stands behind him on the bank nearby, unseen but in easy hailing distance, gesturing ahead encouragingly.

Ahead — there, beckoning to the Voyager — is the proverbial castle in the sky, "a cloudy pile of Architecture," as Cole describes it (in his own commentary on the paintings), "an air-built Castle, that rises dome above dome in the far-off blue sky." The celestial Taj Mahal soars like a cumulus formation, and the Voyager reaches eagerly toward it. We, however, from our elevation above ground level, can see what the Voyager cannot. The river will turn away from the castle, bearing the boat sharply off toward rough waters and rocks faintly visible through trees in the distance. The way to the castle is not by river at all, but instead along a winding dirt path that disappears into hazy hills on the horizon: the road not taken. Perhaps the Voyager fails to notice the side road, or perhaps he pauses to wonder where it might lead; but his fate belongs to the river and the hourglass. "The gorgeous cloud-built palace," Cole says in his description, "whose glorious domes seem yet but half revealed to the eye, growing more and more lofty as we gaze, is emblematic of the daydreams of youth, its aspirations after glory and fame: and the dimly seen path would intimate that Youth, in its impetuous career, is forgetful that it is embarked on the Stream of Life, and that its current sweeps along with resistless force. ..."

Youth is a masterpiece of both draftsmanship and storytelling, perhaps the greatest depiction in Western visual art of the boundless expectations of early adulthood (though it has a literary rival in Joseph Conrad's short story "Youth"). The air in the painting vibrates with hope and aspiration. In Manhood, the third of the four, the scene and story are very different. The Voyager is now (as Cole tells us) "a man of middle age," appearing to modern eyes to be perhaps in his early forties, bearded, and robust, but holding his hands clasped before him as if in supplication. The colors, the clouds, and the horizon all are dark. "Storm and cloud enshroud a rugged and dreary landscape. Bare, impending precipices rise in the lurid light. The swollen stream rushes furiously down a dark ravine, whirling and foaming in its wild career, and speeding toward the Ocean, which is dimly seen through the mist and falling rain. The boat is there plunging amid the turbulent waters." Its rudder has broken off; the Voyager cannot steer and must trust his fate to the guardian angel. But the angel, though still attentive, now looks on from behind and afar, gazing down through the clouds. The seraphic figure is out of the Voyager's sight and too distant to hail in any case. For all the Voyager can tell, he is on his own. His clasped hands pray for deliverance, but his eyes show fear.

"Trouble is characteristic of the period of Manhood," Cole tells us. "In childhood, there is no carking care: in youth, no despairing thought. It is only when experience has taught us the realities of the world, that we lift from our eyes the golden veil of early life; that we feel deep and abiding sorrow: and in the Picture, the gloomy, eclipse-like tone, the conflicting elements, the trees riven by tempest, are the allegory. ..." At our elevation we can see calm oceanic waters beyond, but the Voyager can catch only fitful glimpses of peace, and the river bears him not there but toward implacable rapids and what appear to be the watery mists of a cataract.

The fourth and last painting of the series, Old Age, is also dark in hue, but its tone is again very different. The sky is dark but the storm is clearing; heavenly light breaks through. The boat, battered and broken, has lost both its figurehead and its helm; rudder and hourglass alike are gone. Neither marking time nor setting course is now necessary, for the boat has emerged from sharp crags at the mouth of the river into calm waters of a boundless ocean. The Voyager is balding and white-bearded, as battered as his vessel. He sits in the boat as the infant did, rather than standing like the youth and middle-aged man. His aspect, seen in left profile, is calm, expressing neither joy nor wonder nor fear; his hands are raised in a gesture of greeting — for before him, now nearby and in full view, the guardian angel beckons him heavenward. "Directed by the Guardian Spirit, who thus far has accompanied him unseen, the Voyager, now an old man, looks upward to an opening in the clouds, from whence a glorious light bursts forth; and angels are seen descending the cloudy steps, as if to welcome him to the Haven of Immortal Life. The stream of life has now reached the Ocean to which all life is tending."


Excerpted from "The Happiness Curve"
by .
Copyright © 2018 Jonathan Rauch.
Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

1 The Voyage of Life: Thomas Cole's journey-and mine 1

2 What Makes Us Happy (and Doesn't): The strange illogic of life satisfaction 20

3 A Timely Discovery: How unsuspecting economists (and apes) found the happiness curve 40

4 The Shape of the River: Time, happiness, and the curve of the U 60

5 The Expectations Trap: Midlife malaise is often about nothing 82

6 The Paradox of Aging: Why getting old makes you happier 112

7 Crossing Toward Wisdom: The happiness curve has a purpose, and it's social 138

8 Helping Ourselves: How to get through the U 167

9 Helping Each Other: Bringing midlife out of the closet 186

10 Epilogue: Gratitude 216

Afterword to the Paperback Edition 219

Aging proudly

Acknowledgments 231

Sources and Methods 233

Index 243

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