Happiness is a powerful motivator. It can influence who we choose to spend time with and drive important life decisions. In fact, some people spend their younger years trying to set themselves up for a happy future. This is one reason why middle-aged people can experience a dip in happiness; it can be a shock to discover you’re not exactly where you planned to be.
Research suggests this happiness slump is more common than you might think. Happiness tends to follow a natural cycle that peaks in our 20s before declining in our 30s and 40s, then increasing again as we get older. So, what’s responsible for this emotional roller-coaster?
Plans for happiness can start early in life, thanks to that clichéd fairytale ending: ‘And they lived happily ever after.’ Young people are told the world is their oyster and encouraged to dream big. However, fast-forward to your 30s and 40s, and if your reality doesn’t match your youthful expectations, you can feel unsuccessful or unsatisfied.
This is when many people slide to the bottom of what researchers call the U-curve of happiness. But, as the name suggests, we don’t generally stay down; things swing back around and happiness eventually plateaus around our 70s.
So, what gets us down as we move into middle age?
It’s a stage in life when we’re weighed down by the responsibilities of work and family, money stresses are more common, and social time tends to take a back seat. In fact, people in their 30s and 40s are more likely to use antidepressants and are at greater risk of developing mood disorders than people of other ages.
Middle age is also when we’re more likely to be dealing with the time-consuming pressures of job stress and family life simultaneously. And when we lack the time to maintain close networks of friends, seeking support becomes more difficult.
As we traverse around the U-curve and reach our mid-50s, our happiness levels tend to make a comeback.
It may be that as we get older we’re able to adapt to change better; we become less reactive as our emotions stabilise. We’re also more likely to have developed the coping skills we need to deal with traumatic events, and have built a life perspective that runs deeper than the desire to achieve career or income goals.
By our later years, with children leaving the nest and retirement on the horizon, there’s more time for our social networks, whether it’s through rekindling old friendships or finding new ones. We’re able to enjoy a lifestyle that resembles our 20s: less responsibility, fewer stresses and more time for friends.
If this later stage of the U-curve seems like an age away, there are plenty of things you can do to maintain your happiness. This begins with not trying too hard to find it.
Research has shown that the harder we pursue happiness, the less likely we are to find it. In fact, actively seeking happiness may increase your feelings of loneliness as you compare what you have to what you think you should have.
A more effective strategy may be to reassess your goals and go easier on yourself if your life hasn’t gone exactly as planned.
It’s important to make sure your happiness isn’t linked exclusively to achieving the goals you set for yourself earlier in life. Be mindful that external influences are often beyond your control and may impact your ability to achieve certain goals. Stubbornly refusing to let go of those goals can significantly reduce your sense of wellbeing.
Instead, you should practise gratitude for the things that have gone right, and reassess your goals and expectations to reflect the reality of your life.
Our happiness levels ebb and flow throughout different stages of life, from our carefree and optimistic 20s, through our stressful midlife crises, to our more perceptive later years. You’re not alone in your search for a ‘happily ever after’. However, the key to reaching that fairytale ending might be to alter your ideas about happiness. In the meantime, sit back and enjoy the ride.