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My Unexpected Turn Up the U Curve

My Unexpected Turn Up the U Curve
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By Holly St. Lifer

My mother died fast of pancreatic cancer when I was 17, and I’ve lived most of my life since waiting for the worst.  But when I entered my 50s, for no reason I could conjure, I stopped seeing the world through that dark lens. I wondered if this was wisdom. Is this a perk of getting old? Did I grow out of worrying? Then a few months ago, I read about the U-curve.

In the 1990’s labor economists David Blanchflower of Dartmouth and Andrew Oswald of the University of Warwick began studying the relationship between work and happiness by looking at international surveys of life satisfaction. They found a pattern. Life satisfaction falls for “the first couple of decades of adulthood, bottoms out somewhere in the 40s or early 50s, and then, until the very last years, increases with age, often (not always) reaching a higher level than in young adulthood,” as Jonathan Rauch writes in the Atlantic.  This pattern is known as the U-curve. Though “old age ain’t no place for sissies” as Bette Davis says, there did seem to be some compensation in my outlook.

In my 20’s, 30’s and 40’s, I was ambitious and goal-oriented; at 26 I was an executive producer at a major cable music network.  I got married, was healthy and had two terrific kids. But I was rarely content. I never stayed in one job for more than two years, always setting my sights on the next challenge.  I don’t recall ever giving myself credit for my accomplishments.  I was an “If only” person and big on privately comparing my husband, my house, my income to other people’s.

And then in my early 50s a major shift took place. I still had plenty to worry about: two children finishing college, one a musician, the other a writer. Hurricane Sandy ruined most of my possessions along with a five-year live-in relationship that had long been teetering. (I’d gone through an amicable divorce at 38.) The boom of the digital space meant that my career as a freelance journalist no longer paid the bills.

But on a day-to-day basis, I felt different. I stopped what my kids called “worrying in advance.” Rather, I believed all of it would work itself out. Instead of comparing myself to others, I began to feel fortunate, even lucky.  My children had grown up to be savvy and kind with sound judgment. I knew I could depend on my resourcefulness. I felt loved and understood by friends and family. I appreciated the part of me that had always embraced, rather than feared, change. I was still going full tilt at the gym pushing my body as hard as I had in my 20s. And even though my neck looked more like a turkey’s, I still felt pretty and sexy.

I asked some peers if they’d seen evidence of the U-curve. “I think there is a letting go of the need to struggle,” says 53 year-old Joie Jacobson, a therapist from Astoria, Queens. “I believe we exhaust ourselves in our 20s, 30s, and 40s because we create our own expectations we carry around and constantly try to meet.  Then in our 50’s we say wait a minute, I’m not necessarily getting what I want, and I want life to be easier.  No longer working our asses off becomes part of the wisdom. And we think, by the way, what do I really want? That’s why a lot of older people transition into more satisfying jobs.”

One Stanford University study conducted in 2011 supports this idea.  “As people age and time horizons grow shorter, people invest in what is most important…and derive increasingly greater satisfaction from these investments,” the researchers write.  The study found that “the peak of emotional life may not occur until well into the seventh decade.”

This has been true for me.  Rather than focusing on the state of journalism and my personal life, I moved from the suburbs to the city and landed a job as an editor at a non-profit magazine working with at-risk teenagers, something I had long wanted to do.

There is also the ability to recognize that most of life’s difficulties aren’t the end of the world.  “I catch myself quickly now when I go into an old story,” says Jacobson. “In 2009 when I found out my unemployment had suddenly been cut I went into full-blown shallow breathing mode, walking in circles in my living room. But after 30 minutes I just stopped.  I thought of how many other problems I’d solved in my life and that I’d solve this one too.” I feel the same.

Another explanation can be found in one 2012 study titled, “Don’t Look Back in Anger? Responsiveness to Missed Chances in Successful and Nonsuccessful Aging.” German neuroscientists found a “reduced responsiveness to regret” compared to younger people.  “That is, older people are less prone to feel unhappy about things they can’t change – an attitude consistent, of course, with ancient traditions that see stoicism and calm as part of wisdom,” Rauch writes.

More to the point, I see that older people are less prone to feel frustrated about things they can’t control.  In my case, that’s given me a sense of freedom and space I’m experiencing for the first time as an adult. In particular, I’m letting go of the idea that my grown children need so much of my help.  This benefits them too, giving them permission to dive into their pursuits more fully and independently.  And had I not relinquished this control, I would have been so focused on them I would have missed the opportunity to work at a job that nurtures my soul.

Fifty-nine year old Deborah Farber had a similar experience. When she and her husband turned 50 both were looking forward to traveling together now that their kids were out of the house.  But he died of pancreatic cancer four months later.  “I carried a lot of guilt around. I felt I hadn’t done enough to try and save him, and that I wasn’t doing a good enough job of being both mother and father to my kids,” says Farber.  “I carried the guilt for several years until I began to realize I was not the powerful Oz who could cure cancer.  Once I accepted that I forgave myself and was able to be open to letting someone else in my life.”  Farber found she was more open to getting involved with a man she met who was nothing like her husband. “The universe offered me a different experience and I knew enough to grab it. That’s my wisdom. I couldn’t have seen that when I was 40.”

Certainly our personalities and our past experiences impact on our happiness. In my case, therapy taught me early on that losing my mother in adolescence resulted in anger, a perpetual low-grade sadness, and survivor guilt – all of which I still wrestle with. But Oswald also found the U-curve might be rooted in our biology. Rauch cites a questionnaire filled out by zoologists, researchers and other animal caretakers rating the well-being of more than 500 captive chimpanzees and orangutans in five countries found a similar curve: the primates’ well-being bottomed out between 45 and 50. The authors concluded that their results imply that “human wellbeing’s curve shape is not uniquely human and…its origins may lie partly in the biology we share with closely related great apes.”

According to the National Bureau of Economic Research, part of the answer likely lies in what they call a selection effect: “cheerful people live longer than those who are miserable,” and the U-curve somehow teases this out. They also suggest we are more satisfied as we get older because we become more accepting of our strengths and weaknesses; this makes us less likely to shoot for unattainable goals that will only disappoint us.

I’m currently online dating, which is not something I ever anticipated or would choose. It’s frustrating and emotionally draining and there’s a lot of ageism out there. But my dates do offer evidence of the U-curve. A 56-year-old man who had just gone through a string of vexing difficulties summed it up to me by saying, “Still life is generally good.” To him, the U-curve makes sense because “one acquires so much more perspective as one ages.” Whether that perspective, which is part of wisdom, is developed from living or biology — or both — is still being studied. In the meantime, knowing that the 50s are likely the start of an upward swing makes me happy and full of possibility.



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