I've been musing off and on about a study I read about in the Times a few weeks ago that shows that most Americans grow happier as they age--with a particularly marked rise in happiness after age 50, continuing through the 80s. "[T]ales of midlife crisis," a follow-up article notes, "are the equivalent of urban myths. The most anxiety-ridden years are the 20s and early 30s."
On the one hand, this certainly jibes with my own experience. I was impatient to become an adult, delighted to turn thirty, and have experienced each successive stage of my life as better than the last. My parents, who are 71 and 63, seem like they've never been happier--and it's not just being retired. As far back as I've been paying attention, they seem to have been continually growing as people and taking active pleasure in every change.
But on the other hand, I wonder how much of midlife happiness is dependent on circumstances and personality. Most people become more stable and more secure as they age, and by fifty most people are probably coming to accept where they are and what they've done with their lives. But what about those people who haven't achieved stability, or who are going through negative life events at midlife (divorce, illness, the death of a loved one)? I assume they would not rate themselves as happier, although perhaps they're happier than if those events had occurred in their younger years. I also have a hard time believing that people who, in their thirties, are prone to extreme regret and self-recrimination dispense with those tendencies as they age.
Temperament surely affects happiness, as do the kinds of models or expectations one has for adulthood. The Times article mentioned that it's hard for people in a youth-worshiping culture to get their heads around the idea that middle-aged and older adults are happier than people in their 20s. But I think it's less that we valorize youth than that we disparage adulthood. As popularly conceived, adulthood is a time to Get Serious, Take Responsibility, and Settle Down; a time when (the fear seems to be) one or two decisions will irreversibly determine The Rest of Your Life. You'll wake up one day, married with two kids and a mortgage, and that's all she wrote. (Historiann had a great post a while back about how this vision of adulthood--as a deeply unfun and entirely mandatory experience--seems to underlie the hooliganish partying that takes place on some college campuses.)
I suppose I'm lucky that my parents continually told me and my brother not only that life gets better as one gets older, but that no decision is make-or-break. Whatever opportunities my various family members might have wished were open to them, or whatever twists and turns their lives may have taken, their self-narratives have always been positive ones, emphasizing the pleasures and the non-quantifiable benefits that come from lives that don't follow a single smooth path.
My dad used to talk about this a lot, when I was in my early 20s and anxious about my future. A first-generation college student, he didn't succeed at his first major (engineering), so had to find another one (geology). After college, instead of starting a career in that field, he became a naval officer. He spent three years on an aircraft carrier, in the early days of the Vietnam War, then moved into the reserves (where he remained for 20 years). He started grad school in geology, but dropped out. He met my mother. Moved to a new state. Got an MBA. Worked for a mining company, but didn't like it. Moved to another state. Went to work for a government agency. Had two kids. After fifteen years with the government, he quit to join my uncle's home-building company. That didn't work out, so after a year he resumed his government job, initially at a lower GS level.
Some people, I imagine, would experience some of these decisions as mistakes, or at least as sources of regret. My dad may have felt that way about some of them back when they happened, but the lesson he and my mom imparted to us was: things work out. When you have an opportunity, you should take it. No decisions are wrong decisions if they were made for good reasons at the time.
Based on the study the Times reports on, lots of older people must feel similarly. But we younger folk--and especially much younger folk, like our students--either aren't told such things, or don't believe them. Maybe there's no way to believe that it will all work out (and that it's okay to major in philosophy rather than accounting) until you've seen it happen. But I sure do wish we'd stop feeding young adults that "best years of your life" bullshit.