These past couple of years have been peculiar for me and my friends. Every time we stop to catch our breath, a new crisis occurs. As I write this, I have one friend returning from her third family funeral and another who lost her business partner and father in the same month. One is back in the hospital from a botched routine procedure; three have been newly diagnosed with cancer; and another was laid off with three months to find a job before losing her home. The list goes on…
We are all in our 50s and I couldn’t help but wonder…Is it something in the universe or simply our age?
I used to think that a midlife crisis was eccentric behavior due to boredom or dissatisfaction, but we’re all trying to step off the rollercoaster and start enjoying a little mundane.
So, I decided to look for answers. After all, we couldn’t be the first 50-somethings experiencing such a crazy ride.
I had to laugh when my first Google search on ‘life in your 50s’ resulted in this headline: Under 50? You still haven’t hit rock bottom, happiness-wise.¹ Turns out age does have a lot to do with it, and we seem to be at the bottom of the U curve.
It’s probably normal to start experiencing more deaths and disease at this age, but science says the factors don’t seem to matter; people in their 50s are less happy than they were, and less happy than they will be in the years ahead.
A 2017 study by the National Bureau of Economic Research² considered the psychological well-being of 1.3 million randomly sampled people between the ages of 20 and 90. They found that happiness seems to peak in our 20s and declines until our early 50s where it reaches a nadir (a new term I learned meaning “the lowest point in the fortunes of a person or organization” which certainly doesn’t sound encouraging). Our happiness meter then starts to rise again towards our 60s and into our golden years.
What’s even more remarkable is that findings of the seven different surveys studied all follow the same U-shaped trajectory while representing populations from 51 different nations around the world including the U.S., U.K., and more than 36 other European countries.
While the study doesn’t identify reasons for the midlife low, those reporting the findings note financial stress, job insecurity, demands of the roles taken on, the onset of disease, divorce and death around us, and the mere thought of being “half way there.”
Of course, beyond the external factors are physiological changes, such as decreasing hormones leading to menopause in women and andropause in men (yes, male menopause is a reality).
And sometimes it’s none of these.
The “midlife slump” is often about nothing, says Jonathan Rauch, author of The Happiness Curve: Why Life Gets Better After 50. He adds that it’s not the same as a midlife crisis which can result in urgent, irrational actions and considers the slump “a natural transition, simply due to the passing of time.”
These are sobering words for those of us in the midst of it all. I guess, as they say, this too shall pass and the challenges will make us stronger.
While researching his book, Rauch spoke to many who have experienced the slump. In an interview with The Guardian,³ he describes Karla, 54, who is on the upswing of the curve and says she is savoring her friendships more, feeling more organized and efficient, and doing more volunteer work. “Now I feel grateful for the now. On a day-to-day basis I probably do the same things, but I feel different.”
“That’s a very profound insight,” he says, “because what we’re talking about here is not that the conditions of your life change in some huge way, but how you feel about your life changes.”
Maybe this dip is simply teaching us lessons that will make us better human beings and able to enjoy – and greater appreciate– what we have, and our later years. These struggles certainly change your perspective on life, and it’s good to learn from those who came before you.
In her article 50 Life Changes to Make After 50, Sarah Crow reminds us that growing older is a privilege.⁴ “Many people find that their 50s are the perfect time to make some serious changes in their lives in pursuit of happiness, health, and overall well-being.” She advises that instead of going through this decade with a sense of dread, start considering it a time for positive change.
Her list of 50 action items is very inspiring and includes life-altering activities such as conquering long-held fears, learning a new language, taking a solo vacation and forgiving someone or making amends (even your exes).
She ends with a powerful tool when it comes to your happiness and the happiness of those around you: simply smile more. “Putting a smile on your face not only makes you seem more approachable, it can actually boost your mood, as well. A little happiness goes a long way.”
On her site Sixty and Me, founder Margaret Manning discusses 5 Mistakes that Stop People from Finding Happiness After 50.⁵ “If there’s one thing that I have learned, it’s that happiness after 50 is a choice,” she says. “You can invest in your health, wealth and happiness. Or, you can let yourself go. You can build a solid foundation for the future. Or, you can accept age-related problems as inevitable.”
Her list of five mistakes to avoid are worth a read and include trying to look younger, not realizing that making friends at this stage in life requires work, buying your happiness with material things, looking at retirement as a destination, and not investing in your health.
After reading these encouraging articles, I decided to add one new and different activity to each week. I left my desk and took a painting class at 2 p.m. on a Wednesday and visited the Route 66 exhibit at the La Quinta Museum this week. Both activities took me out of my being and helped change my perspective. These simple changes sparked excitement and enlivened my spirit. I look forward to next week’s selection, whatever that may be.
My friends and I continue to manage the stress with meditation, prayer, affirmations, nutrition, and exercise. This phase of our life has certainly strengthened our appreciation for each other…and wine. Both are helping us through the toughest times.
The truth is that laughter and levity just may be the best medicine for this crazy ride called life.
Lauren Del Sarto is founder and publisher of Desert Health and can be reached at [email protected]
References: 1) https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2017/08/24/under-50-you-still-havent-hit-rock-bottom-happiness-wise; 2) https://www.nber.org/papers/w23724; 3) https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2018/may/05/happiness-curve-life-gets-better-after-50-jonathan-rauch; 4) https://bestlifeonline.com/life-changes-after-50/; 5) http://sixtyandme.com/5-mistakes-that-stop-people-from-finding-happiness-in-life-after-50/