Feeling the mid-life gloom? Why our happiness dips in mid-life and what to do about it.

Being happy is a human goal.  Everyone, seemingly, wants to be happy.  This is reinforced by our environment; we read and hear narratives everywhere telling us we should be happy and we deserve to be happy.    Advertisers constantly use the concept of happiness as an outcome; “Buy XX and it will make your child/partner/self happier”. Most of us, at some point in our lives, find a point, a place, where we are happy. Typically this was in our youth and, as we reach middle age, it begins to fade away.

The mid-life dip in happiness has been well-researched and consistently shows the relationship between age and life satisfaction as a U shape.  We are happiest in our early 20s. The lowest level of satisfaction occurs in middle age (35–50 years).  Happiness dips towards middle age and then rises again over the age of 60.  Why is this?  It could be that those parts of life that challenge us most are at their peak in middle age including illness, redundancy, divorce or perhaps the realisation that your career is not going in the way you expected. This pattern is not universal but fairly consistent in countries that have higher than average incomes.  In better-off English speaking countries the lowest levels of well-being are 45-54 years. 

Sasha, a colleague in her late 40s, explained her mid-life gloom: “We’re sandwiched between teenagers sitting key exams and elderly parents with increasing health problems.  In-between I am trying to maintain a career and keep my marriage on an even track.  There’s angst at every turn.” 

The added factor is ageing which in women is strongly influenced by hormone decline and the onset of menopause.  The symptoms of menopause affect women differently but can be the cause of enormous misery for some in mid-life.  The CIPD’s excellent paper on menopause in the workplace highlights a much-neglected subject.  https://www.cipd.co.uk/knowledge/culture/well-being/menopause

Our happiness is also affected by the wider world, especially the news coverage of horrific global events and divided opinions between people and nations. Political rhetoric and the views of neighbours and family which are vastly different from our own can all lead to feelings of pessimism.  Social media has the capability of amplifying the worst news and the most extreme opinions, things that would not normally be said in person.  It can be hard to manage our own happiness when you read bitter narratives and hear angry voices, even close to home.

Looking to the positive, the mid-life dip can provide the stimulus for change.  There’s a good reason why businesses set up by the over 50s are statistically more likely to thrive than those established by younger people – older workers have life skills and great experience to bring to new opportunities.  Many will say that it’s also necessity that makes entrepreneurs out of mid-life workers.  While there are laudable and very welcome initiatives being established by companies like AVIVA who cite commercial advantage rather than altruism for their support of people over 45   https://www.marketingweek.com/2019/04/09/aviva-support-over-45s/?cmpid=em~newsletter~breaking_news~n~n&utm_medium=em&utm_source=newsletter&utm_campaign=breaking_news&eid=7909317&sid=MW0001&adg=cacc0206-a6f2-4c31-b4b9-f2035356ada1, many in mid-life see their career opportunities diminish.  I remember meeting a recruitment specialist about changing jobs in my early 40s.  She told me that if I didn’t secure a new permanent job by the time I was 45 the likelihood of the career development I was seeking would never materialise.  I am glad to report that she was wrong but I know that many struggle. 

The big change I made in mid-life was returning to university to do a Master’s degree.  I took advantage of the support available for post graduate students through a Postgraduate Master’s Loan https://www.gov.uk/masters-loan that helps to fund course fees and living costs.  Currently standing at £10,609 (for the whole course), the loan is available up to the age of 60 (you must be under 60 on the first day of the academic year of the course to be eligible).  For me studying a Master’s in Organisational and Social Psychology at LSE was life-enhancing – both stimulating and challenging.   I particularly loved the opportunity to study and share ideas with people of different ages and nationalities. 

Changing what you do rather than just what you think seems to be the best route to better well-being.  We have the capacity to be happier.  Our brains are hard-wired for optimism.  It is, however, unrealistic to expect life to be joyful all the time.  Mid-life can be a good time for reflection; if we have experienced problems and circumstances in early life that are not conducive to happiness it’s important to take steps to reinforce happiness in later life.  Developing a positive outlook helps - most research indicates that it is linked to greater achievement in life and better health.  



Are you happy in your job?

An email popped into my inbox this morning that identified nine UK based companies where the employees say they are particularly happy. Glassdoor 9 companies with happy employees.

Having spent the last six months studying happiness and it association with career success as part of a Psychology Master’s Degree at the London School of Economics, I was fascinated to find out which companies distinguish themselves in this way and why.  The companies were all selected on the basis of good work/life balance scores. Staff use words like inclusive culture, supportive management, admirable values, and trust to explain their good reviews. “I’m trusted to work when and where suits me best, trusted to wear what I like and trusted to get the job done” said one current employee. The majority are in digital companies working on software development or Fintech, (apart from a notable exception, an award-winning firm providing carers for the elderly in Yorkshire) and tend to be private businesses, with under 200 employees. 

What does this tell us? 

In recent decades, interest in happiness has increased sharply and there now is wide acceptance in society of what happiness is and means to individuals. Contemporary happiness research is focused on both the outcomes and causes of happiness.  Happiness in the workplace has become a significant area of research because higher subjective well-being leads to increased productivity, job satisfaction, engagement, optimal performance and affective organisational commitment. 

How well you fit the job and how the job suits your needs matters. This notion of person-environment fit in organisations has been discussed and debated for many years. This is the idea that individuals want to find organisations that best make use of their skills and meet their specific needs; and organisations want to recruit those who will best meet the demands of the job, adapt to training and changes in job demands, as well as remaining loyal and committed to the organisation.  In my view this still premise still holds. You will be happiest in a job where your skills are well-utilised and you feel valued. 

It is, however, more complex than this. Your genes affect your well-being and a variety of environmental influences affect happiness, including relationships, community, personal freedom as well as work and income. Commuting behaviour for example, affects happiness and there’s some evidence that long commutes affect women more than men (possibly because women with children don’t want to waste time getting home). 

It is widely known that those who have friends and relationships are happier than those without, and interestingly religion (of any type) brings happiness, though it is possible that this is because of the social contact gained by being part of a like-minded group. 

I found in my research (replicating other similar findings) that happiness precedes career success, meaning that the happier you are to begin with, the more likely you are to be successful in your chosen career (having found the right job to suit your skills and needs).  So if you are unhappy at work and want to change jobs, look at the factors or influences on your well-being outside the workplace too.   

The Female Economic Growth Factor

Conference at Asia House 2 March 2017

I was asked to chair a session about women's participation in STEM (Science Technology, Engineering and Mathematics).  The issue is particularly pronounced in Asia where only three out of 18 countries have an equal or above proportion of females in the STEM workforce.  In Asia-Pacific there is a talent shortage of 45%, most of which is in STEM related occupations.                                                        http://asiahouse.org/closing-gender-gap-will-unlock-economic-potential-asia/

Two speakers, both ambassadors for WINDS (Women's Initiative in Developing STEM Careers) - an initiative launched at the G7 in Japan last year - spoke to a packed audience about their experiences and recommendations for change. 

Professor Reiko Kuroda, Professor at Tokyo University of Science briefed the conference on the situation in Japan where encouraging women into the workforce is a fundamental part of the economic strategy of Prime Minister Abe to drive growth and overcome the challenges of an ageing and shrinking workforce.

Professor Averil MacDonald is Emeritus Professor of Science Engagement at the University of Reading.  She has published extensive research about the challenges of getting women into STEM careers in the UK, looking at the factors that influence career choice in young women, why STEM careers are rejected and the strategies that affect change, and those that don't.   It was a surprise to some of the audience that mothers and family attitude affects choice of careers such as engineering. 

The Q&A session after both speeches was lively.  Many spoke about their own experiences of working in Asia and others wanted to know more about the People Like Me initiative Professor MacDonald discussed, See https://www.wisecampaign.org.uk/training/people-like-me  the ground-breaking resource for teachers, STEM ambassadors, careers advisors and others working with young people to show girls that people just like them are happy and successful working in science, technology or engineering.



Building confidence through changing limiting behaviours

A few months ago I attended the opening night of the Asia House Literature Festival in London featuring Great British Bake Off winner 2015 Nadiya Hussain in conversation with renowned journalist and author Yasmin Alibhai-Brown. 

Fans of the BBC TV hit programme may have seen the emotional final scenes of the show when Nadiya’s win was announced. 

“I am never going to say I can’t do it”, she said, and then: “I am never going to say maybe. I am never going to say I don’t think I can.  I can and I will.”   

In the conversation session Nadiya elaborated further.  She told the audience how an acute lack of confidence had limited things she did and that entering the TV baking show was a first small step towards changing her life.  Nadiya explained circumstances that many mothers with young children experience – that her world had become very small in recent years and how she rarely went out anywhere unless accompanied by her family.  Managing the demands of young children can be limiting for some, especially for stay at home mums, and it can be hard to build confidence again. 

I have witnessed many women in their middle age with similar feelings of diminishing confidence. Children growing up and leaving home, lack of or a stagnant career, feeling that the passing of years is accelerating alongside the effects of ageing can all have a negative effect on women, their confidence and their well-being. 

The experience of working with and coaching women in business environments has shown me that making small changes in behaviour can help to build confidence.  Anyone, in business or not, can benefit from an understanding of how our behaviour impacts on others.  And it’s equally important to appreciate how our behaviour affects the perception of our abilities.  Women in particular can be affected by limiting behaviours – attitudes and actions of our own making that hold us back. 

If this is a situation that sounds familiar, try some strategies and tips to change limiting behaviours to help boost your confidence at work and in social situations:

Think about language.  How many times do you apologise or justify yourself before you say something or email someone.  How many times do you use “just” or “sorry” without needing to…

“I just wanted to ask you….”

“Can I just have moment of your time? “

“Sorry, but I need to make an appointment to …”

Get out of the habit of asking for permission in this way.  Say or write without justification for your demands or actions.   This is not about ignoring common courtesies - which are always important - it’s ensuring that you position yourself in a confident manner.  People will respect you more and you will get better results at every turn.

Delaying personal investment   At the risk of quoting a well-known cosmetics company, it’s worrying to see women delay investment in themselves, in their well-being, in their personal development.  I see women feeling guilty, anxious and even shame about spending time, money and energy into their own needs, even though we all know you really are “worth it”.  We are very good at putting others first, perhaps as a result of a mothering instinct.  Successful people, both men and women, spend time, effort and money on their own progress and growth because they know without a doubt that it will pay off – for themselves and for others around them, whether it’s for the benefit of a family or for the wider team in a work situation. 

Negative thinking  We all know women whose default position is “I am not good enough” or “I couldn’t do that”.  Women can underestimate their abilities and are often risk adverse which prevents them from applying for jobs, standing up for themselves and even interjecting in meetings.  You can build confidence by positive thinking, by improving your communication skills and by understanding what’s holding you back.  The first step in changing behaviour by understanding what’s going on around you and the impact you have on others. 

This blogpost first appeared on themuttonclub.com in July 2016