Although the forties are the new forties in many more ways than one, sometimes we get snagged on one feature that plagues us throughout the decade, like alcoholism has me now. And while these snags are not just a forties thing, I suspect they’re a distinct characteristic of the forties in the Western world. The Washington Post recently published an article titled, “Under 50? You still haven’t hit rock-bottom, happiness-wise,” in its “Wonkblog” section (soooo millennial… the blog AND the title). The writer contends that our general sense of happiness reaches its nadir in our forties, supporting the claim with evidence from a survey designed to determine the life-satisfaction of over a million subjects. In one more line, I can summarize his point: people in their forties are the most unhappy people in the Western world.
A line graph attached to the article makes it easier to digest this generalization—our lives seem to follow a U pattern—first, life’s one big party—all the wavy lines are at the top of the graph; then we hit rock-bottom; finally, we turn fifty, and all the wavy lines rise again to the top of the graph, like a middle-aged phoenix soaring from its ashes—life becomes one big party again. How nifty.
Ordinarily, I would ignore or vehemently argue against such conjectures, i.e., the whole point of this blog; however, we experience some pretty heavy stuff during our forties, enough for us to question our own life satisfaction and possibly admit doubts on a survey designed to assess our “happiness levels.” Here’s what I know: the forties are humbling. It’s the decade when we finally start to see life for what it really is—a finite series of choices that we make, choices with results that could affect us for the remainder of our lives. I was unhappy with my job in my thirties, but I was too busy being a born-again single lady to notice. I ignored the really big choice—staying at my job—for the simple choices like where to go for Sunday brunch. I dreaded going to work five days a week, but I lived it up on the weekends, and I thought that was happiness. That’s not being happy. That’s just being delusional. If a representative from the “General Social Survey” had asked me about my happiness levels when I was, say, 33, I might have responded, “Yeah, all good here,” even though I didn’t know what the fuck I was talking about.
The other side of this spectrum takes a different, yet no less delusional, approach to its life satisfaction. Have you ever asked an elderly person how it’s going? How often do we hear something like of “Oh, can’t complain!” That’s right. Once you’ve already faced your life’s choices, once you’ve recognized your own mortality, and your friends and family start dying off, you might feel fortunate to still be breathing. At that age, it’s probably easier to frame the definition of happiness in an “I’m still standing, so what?” kind of attitude. Life isn’t one big party on the young or old sides of the line graph, life is just one big fantasy to get us through our days.
Our forties tend to be the years when we face those life snags, when we start ruminating over questions like, “How much longer do I have with my parents?” or “Is this really the only career I’m ever going to have?” or “Did I really sign up to spend the rest of my days with this asshole?” The term “mid-life crisis” had to come from somewhere. I’ve ruminated over those questions, except for maybe the last one because I chose wisely the second time around the marriage-go-round. These thoughts become big, existential dilemmas in our forties. Rather than considering the forties our time of greatest unhappiness, I would rather consider it our time of greatest introspection.
It takes a lot of strength to confront reality. I think that if you can come to grips with your choices, attempt to solve your problems without ignoring them, and find peace with whatever you can’t change (like crepe-neck or aging parents), then you have a right to label yourself “satisfied” or “happy” or whatever it is that the young and old are saying on this survey. To paraphrase Dickens, it’s quite possible that our forties could be the worst of times and also the best of times.