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.