Tuesday, January 4, 2011

The U-Bend of Life

The cover of the Special Christmas Double Issue of The Economist (Dec 18-31) caught my eye recently. In big bold letters, it proclaimed “The Joy of Growing Old (or why life begins at 46)”. As Kathy & I are both now at the beginning of our fifth decade of life, I was intrigued enough to buy the issue in order to read the article inside.

Well, okay, I admit it... I like The Economist and would probably have bought it anyway :) But the article, entitled “The U-Bend of Life” was a bonus point. Here’s how it starts out:

“Ask people how they feel about getting older, and they will probably reply in the same vein as Maurice Chevalier: ‘Old age isn’t so bad when you consider the alternative.’ Stiffening joints, weakening muscles, fading eyesight and the clouding of memory, coupled with the modern world’s careless contempt for the old, seem a fearful prospect—better than death, perhaps, but not much. Yet mankind 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.”

I’m not sure I like the drain-pipe analogy of the U-bend (why couldn’t they have used a picture of a mountain road?)... but I guess it’s a good way to describe the phenomenon.

The conventional view of life, based on the “seven ages of man” model first outlined in the 12th century, and later popularized by Shakespeare in his play “As You Like It” in the early 1600s, has the curve going the other way. Adults increase in stature, wealth, experience, and happiness until roughly middle age, after which life becomes a downhill slide to the grave. However, studies first undertaken in the early 1990s began to put this image into doubt. And subsequent studies in various disciplines appear to confirm that in general, life is a U-bend rather than an arch, with people getting happier and enjoying life more as they pass the emotionally low point of middle age.

Several reasons have been postulated for this. One is the effect of emotional experiences at various stages of life. Stress from increasing responsibilities generally begins to rise during the early 20s and continues until middle age, after which it tends to fall sharply. Worry often peaks in middle age and then declines. Middle age, for various reasons, is often accompanied by increased feelings of sadness, which then subside with additional years. Feelings of anger tend to decline with age.

Another reason offered is the impact of external circumstances. For example, people in their 40s often have teenage children. The low point of middle age could be due to having to share living space with angry or rebellious adolescents. On the other hand, older people may be more content because they tend to be richer and more materially secure than middle-aged folks still burdened with mortgage payments and their children’s post-secondary educational expenses.

However, even when controlling for factors such as material possessions and security, employment status, and family circumstances, the U-bend is still there. In fact, even when taking cultural differences into account, the pattern still appears, though the age at which the low point of life is reached often differs somewhat. For instance, a study of people in 72 countries shows that the Swiss reach their most miserable period of life at age 35, while the Ukrainians don’t get to this point until they are 62. However, on average, most people tend to be least happy in their 40s and early 50s.

According to the article, the main reason why people tend to get happier following the misery of middle age appears to be internal. Studies show that older people generally have fewer fights and come up with better solutions to conflict. They are better at controlling their emotions, less prone to anger, and better at accepting misfortune. As they come closer and closer to the end of their life, they get better at living for the present and focusing on things that truly matter. They come to accept their strengths and weaknesses and learn to be satisfied with what they are able to achieve rather than continuing to strive to satisfy ambitions they can no longer reach.

All in all, this is very encouraging for folks my age! First of all, it means that we probably won’t get any more miserable than we currently are. We’re already at the bottom of the drain pipe :) And secondly, thank God, it’s all uphill from here!

As for all you younger folks... well, hang in there. The bottom of the drain pipe is coming, but things will get better... eventually :P

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