We moved house recently, my husband and I. When I telephoned hauling companies to inquire about carrying our lifetime of possessions to a new place three miles away, I asked about fees, and availability, and whether or not the workers would actually put boxes marked “kitchen” into the kitchen. I wound up each interview by asking the same question: "Why should I hire you guys, rather than your competitor?"
The winner replied, “Because we do everything we can to make our customers happy.”
There it was again: Another person — this time, a clerk who answers telephones at a moving company — offering happiness as an incentive. They were everywhere. My plumber recently changed his company logo from a toilet to a smiley face. The mechanic who last week changed the oil in my car texted me as I was driving away from his shop: “hope ur happy with our service boss!!!!” (I replied: “You must have meant this message for someone else, as I am never happy nor am I your boss.”)
Our move was a disaster. Many antiques were damaged; my favorite hi-fi was destroyed; not one of the boxes marked “kitchen” made it anywhere near that room. The process of taking our things from one place to another took twice as long as promised, and cost three times the price I’d been quoted. I was something other than happy.
While I stewed, I thought of my friend Jonathan Rauch, who grew up in Paradise Valley and attended Camelback High. Jon’s new book, The Happiness Curve: Why Life Gets Better After 50, was tucked into a cardboard box marked “new non-fiction: guest bedroom” somewhere in our new home. I found the carton (in the master bathroom, next to boxes marked “basement” and “dining room”) and began reading. Halfway through, I emailed Jon. Would he be willing to talk to me, I asked, about the happiness curve, which I was now convinced is not only a real thing but was very likely happening to me?
Jon was willing. I finished reading The Happiness Curve, in which Jon explains how science, nature, and the unrealistic life expectations we have in our 20s conspire to confuse us about happiness.
Jon, a celebrated journalist and Brookings Institution senior fellow, noticed his own trough-related malaise in his 40s, after he’d won a giant literary prize. “I had good health, plenty of money, a solid relationship, a vocation I believed in, and a frigging National Magazine Award,” he told me when I phoned. “But all I could think about was what I hadn’t achieved. I decided there was something wrong with me.”
Not long after, Jon’s parents both died within a few years of one another. He lost his magazine job and his new startup venture crashed. Yet during this time, he found himself less unhappy than he’d been when things were going his way. Jon’s a big-picture thinker, so he set out to discover why he’d felt rotten when things were so great.
He interviewed neuroscientists, psychologists, economists, and a bunch of newly happy better-than-middle-aged folks to determine that — even in an ageist society like ours — getting older works in favor of happiness. Scientists and academics have decided that our adult perception of happiness is U-shaped. Their studies suggest that our contentment heads south beginning in our 20s, lands in what Jon calls a trough in our mid- or later 40s, then arcs upward after that. (So much for that old saw about life beginning at 40.)
The real revelation is that the discontent that comes before middle-aged contentment isn’t really about anything.
“It just happens,” Jon told me. “It’s a natural transition that’s not related to anything wrong with you or your life or your mental health.”
According to one of the studies Jon cites in his book, this happiness U-curve can be found in 55 of 80 countries surveyed for later-life cheerfulness. I worried, I confessed to Jon, that Americans — middle-class white Americans, anyway — are preoccupied with our own well-being.
“It’s a first-world problem, to be sure,” Jon agreed. “It’s typically the high achiever for whom things are going well who gets stuck and anxious. So why should anyone else care? Because people do bad things in the world when they think they’re doing something wrong.”
In short, feeling good about ourselves can prevent lousy behavior that may harm others. But I’m stuck, I confessed to my friend, in how worrying about happiness is maybe an elitist activity.
Sure, Jon told me. “But I think most people seek satisfaction in life. I remain to be convinced that people in bad situations don’t have that aspiration. The data sets I used in my book are international and cross economic lines. So, while there are reasons why poor people living in Afghanistan might have more reasons to be unhappy than middle-class Americans do, you still see the effects of time on their happiness.”
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But if we get better at being happy as we age, isn’t that because practice makes perfect? Don’t we get better at a lot of things, simply because we’ve been doing them longer?
Partly, Jon says. “The message is not that everyone will be happy in their 50s, but that time is playing weird tricks on us, and a lot of what’s happening to our perception of happiness is out of our control. Knowing that when we’re younger is a good tool, maybe one that will make being stuck in the trough easier to deal with.”
After Jon and I hung up, I began writing this essay. About halfway through, my computer crashed, offering scary blue screens and vague warnings about viruses before freezing up altogether.
I texted my computer guy, and took a deep breath. I hadn’t unpacked my hard drive yet, so nothing’s been backed up in weeks. The new wireless isn’t hooked up yet, so my files haven’t been loading to my cloud account. But I’d read Jonathan Rauch’s new book. I knew I was well on my way out of the happiness trough; old enough to handle a little setback like a crashed computer. And definitely old enough to know that a double martini before noon is perfectly acceptable on days like today.