Phooey to the decline narrative - why 50 is the gateway to happiness

“The midlife slump is very often, literally, about nothing.”  That’s one of the many observations of Jonathan Rauch from our conversation about his book The Happiness Curve in December of 2018.

It’s an upbeat listen that serves up surprises and positive perspectives in equal measure. I’m betting you too could use a small break from the deeply distressing news out of Afghanistan and the ongoing back and forth about how we manage living with COVID.

Jonathan has put out two more books since we spoke. We’ll have him on The Big Middle soon to discuss his latest The Constitution of Knowledge: A Defense of Truth. As one reviewer put it, it’s an antidote to the misinformation imperilling our politics.

Here’s a replay of our episode about The Happiness Curve. Enjoy!


Subscribers to The Big Middle will have heard just about every guest mention the U-curve of happiness. Along the life course, social and brain science shows the curve is happy-miserable-happy not, as you might have surmised, happy-miserable-more miserable until the end.

Perplexed when he had his own midlife slump, my guest went into deep research mode and wrote a book about it. American Jonathan Rauch is a print journalist of distinction – the best broadsheets, the best news magazines. The book, his sixth, is the hot seller The Happiness Curve: Why Life Gets Better After 50. I reached him at his home in north Virginia.

Hear what when:

  • How the book grew out of his search for the cause of his inexplicable period of midlife gloom

“I knew it was irrational at that point and knew I had to start looking for answers. It was not depression.. It was a contentment disorder, completely normal, but I didn’t know that.”

  • The surprising discoveries about the prevalence of the midlife slump borne of his study of global data feast around the subject of happiness

“People think this is supposed to be an invulnerable time of life but in fact it is a highly vulnerable time of life when we need more support, not less support.”

  • I question finding that midlife slump same for both genders – what about the slam-dunk of menopause for many women?
  • Dissatisfaction hits high-achievers hardest and happens when there is an absence of strife, leading to a rough transition

What seems to be happening… is a transition period from the values of early adulthood , which are focused on ambition and social competition …to the values of the later decades of life.. nurturing connecting, community – much better values to making human beings happy in life.”

  • Contrary to popular belief, last several decades of life are the happiest, satisfying, fulfilling – “pot of gold at end of rainbow”
  • What happens to our later-life brains to make us so happy?
  • Stereotypes about 50 marking start of decline and grumpiness are all wrong and make midlife so much worse than it should be

“If people understood that 50 is the gateway to two, three, eventually four decades of healthy, emotionally-satisfying life, they wouldn’t feel that sudden pressure to be on top of the world and feel much better about ageing.”

  • The nastiness of ageism bites hard just as we gain more emotional stability and tighten our focus on priorities
  • The ‘Voyage of Life’ story as depicted by Thomas Cole, 19th-century American landscape painter – “surprisingly scientifically accurate”
  • Of still bodies and busy minds, the opposite of the way we lived when we didn’t have time to think about whether we were contented or not with our lot in life
  • The importance of real-life social connections, not “disembodied” on social media – “the bad effects seem to be swamping the good”
  • How writing the book has changed his view of the future
  • How the work of anti-ageism activist Ashton Applewhite has sensitized him to age discrimination across the age spectrum
  • Advice for those on the cusp of their midlife slump?

“Time is on your side. As long as this slump can seem to go on – it seems eternal – but just when it seems like it will never end, that’s when it starts to end. And there’s actual science about why that would be the case. Be patient. Time will help you.”


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