Discover what Research Reveals about the Biology of Happiness and How to Navigate that ‘Temporary Low’ that Comes with Middle Age

Midlife is a time of significant change and readjustment of our priorities. Themes of change include our body, our role as family provider, our career, or our ambitions, all of which are deeply relevant to our sense of meaning and purpose in life. These basic building blocks of meaning are at risk of collapsing in midlife.

A classic illustration of the midlife crisis goes like this. Joe has just turned 51 and, although he has achieved his professional goals, he feels depressed and underappreciated in his job. His body begins to show physical signs of aging, such as achy joints, the loss of his youthful appearance, and the onset of baldness. His children are growing up and moving out. He blames his job, his wife and his surroundings for trapping him in a rut. Flashes of evasion begin to dominate his thoughts. Meeting a new woman, pursuing a new activity, exploring a new spot in the country – any or all of these become new targets to pursue in his quest for freedom. But once these objects of desire become accessible, the picture often reverses. He eventually realizes that the new promise could just be another dead end that he wants to break free of –  and return to his old life, his wife and children, whose sudden loss has made them dear to him. But nothing guarantees that he will be able to go back to square one.

In hindsight, Joe is among those of us who wished he had been forewarned: happiness declines with age for about 2 decades – from early adulthood to middle age – when it hits an all-time low, only to rise again later ("U-shaped happiness curve").

People around the globe experience a “U-shaped happiness curve”

New research shows that the happiness levels experienced by millions of people around the world drop sharply in midlife. Based on 132 countries, researcher David Blanchflower found that happiness follows a “U-shaped curve” throughout life and reaches its lowest point around midlife. The curve depicts a decline in happiness in early adulthood through midlife, followed by a recovery and rise with age. Although the exact shape varies from country to country, the bottom of the curve (or happiness nadir) is between the ages of 40 and 50.

This U-shaped curve emerged only after researchers adjusted for variables such as income, marital status, employment, and so on, to retain only the effects of age on happiness. Filtering out salient life characteristics points to an intriguing possibility: there may be an underlying pattern of life satisfaction that is independent of life context. That is, all other things being equal, it may be more difficult to be satisfied with one’s life in middle age than at any other time.  

This means that midlife discontent seems to have a biological basis. Much to their surprise, Oswald and two primatologists found the same U-shaped curve for the mood of both chimpanzees and orangutans over time. The apes' level of well-being reaches its lowest point at ages comparable to humans, between 40 and 50 years old. The authors concluded in a 2012 paper, "Our results imply that the U-shape of human well-being is not limited to humans and that, while it may be partly explained by aspects of human life and society, its origin may lie in part in the biology we share with closely related great apes."

The fact that apes also experience this decline in well-being in midlife could be nature’s way of spurring us to take actions that improve our chances of survival or meet the needs of our communities.

Why is happiness so often U-shaped? Why the common dissatisfaction in middle age? And why the upswing afterward?

Midlife is a time of change and reprioritization. There are many coinciding factors that underlie the midlife crisis. It is often a stressful time, marked by the simultaneous demands of work, children, and aging parents.

It is also a period of recalibration. As people age and realize that their time horizon is shrinking, they tend to value their lives more in terms of social connectedness than in terms of social competition. They are now invested first in what is most important, typically their meaningful relationships, from which they derive more fulfillment.

Another thing is that we become more accepting of our limitations because we recognize that goals are set in a temporal context that naturally evolves with age. To some extent the expectation gap closes.

Also, younger people have a harder time regulating their emotions. Anger outbursts may have overshadowed their early years and disrupted their families. They finally realize that they didn’t need to respond with 5-dollar reactions to nickel provocations!

There is also the "purpose" element of life's meaning that causes problems in midlife and beyond. Logic dictates that we have fewer future-oriented goals or activities as we age. In fact, for many of us, fewer goals can make us feel like we have less to live for. This is why finding a new purpose is key to overcoming the midlife crisis.

While some aspects of our sense of purpose may fall away as we age, our overall life satisfaction may reach new heights, with many beneficial effects on our health and well-being. "Studies show quite clearly that life satisfaction generally improves in our 50s and continues to increase in our 60s and 70s and beyond " Blanchflower says. Perhaps it's because we gain more perspective and start prioritizing our relationships more. It is important to understand this trend so that we can manage it better.

Find your purpose, save your midlife

So, what do you do, if you find yourself in the midst of a crisis of meaning and purpose in midlife?

Recognize that meaning is important for your well-being, as opposed to distraction from the important stuff, like all those emails you need to answer. Meaning is the foundation for a fun and impactful life.

1)    Pause and take some time to reflect and learn. Ask yourself whether the reasoning behind the strategy you have been pursuing up to this point is still valid? For example, you may find that the priorities you set as an executive, focused on success and opportunity, are no longer aligned with your current priorities, such as nurturing dormant relationships with people who matter to you. Reconnect with your strengths and values, and shift your skills and expertise to those activities that bring you joy and maximize your well-being.

2)    Explore and create the list of priorities for a meaningful life that will serve as a "catalyst for a fresh look at life." Whether we pursue a fresh take on life at age 50, 63 or 76 is irrelevant. What matters most is that we remain open to whatever catalyst can help us find a new perspective on the way we work and live our lives today, so that we can give a new impetus to our lives.

3)    Spend your time and energy on the dreams and aspirations that are deeply important to you. This is the big purpose item. In my opinion, the most worthy goals may not be strictly achievable. These are dreams so big that just working towards them is significant and rewarding. With goals like these, it doesn’t matter how many years we may have left; all of them can be imbued with the quest to achieve that goal.

4)    Finally, it is essential to regularly ask yourself if you are truly doing the things you want to do today considering the number of things you could be doing in your life.

Self-examination in midlife is highly beneficial

Blanchflower speculates that the observed decline in happiness may reflect a "realization" that some of our dreams have not come true, which is a major blow to our contentment. Also, in today's social-media-rich culture, in which everyone appears to be doing better than us, it's easy to feel inferior to others, which can wreck havoc on happiness at any age, but may be particularly challenging in midlife.

Midlife self-examination can be highly beneficial, as it may lead us to new ways of thinking about the challenges we face. It is important to resist the urge to focus exclusively on the negative aspects of our situation and become disillusioned. We may then be tempted to end long-standing relationships and make other unwise decisions that may significantly alter our well-being – especially if these actions do not address the root causes of our dissatisfaction.

Final thoughts

Although some of us may still be navigating our way through middle age in an emotionally charged state of mind, we should be aware that we are not alone and that this midlife happiness slump usually subsides as we get a little older, so let's get through it without doing anything stupid.

The midlife crisis is not about immature behavior or loss of control in middle age, but more about an extended unpleasant but manageable downturn – a difficult and gradual transition to a new equilibrium. According to Hannes Schwandt, of Princeton, “if more people understood how common the U-shaped pattern is, they might be less inclined to make the forecasting errors that contribute to bad decisions and disappointment.”

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