Monday, July 05, 2010

The best of all possible worlds keeps getting better

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.


rachel said...

i read that article and wasn't surprised at all by it, though i agree with your interpretation about adulthood being represented as the time to get serious, and the idea of change being irreversible. I am much happier in my early thirties than i was throughout my twenties, even though i do a lot less of the stuff that is the most fun to me (travel travel travel, extended fieldwork trips, being in a intellectual enviro totally suited to my field, a whole lot of bonking around between partners) and i'm saddled with a mortgage and a demanding academic job. but i'm also loads more confident, more flexible, less in need of attention (erm, no more bonking) and more able to interact with lots of different kinds of folks that i was when i was younger. i love my partner so much and though we're both very into being able to pick up and take off at a moment's notice, we both looking forward to starting a family and being more anchored in the community we're building around us. for me, settling down has had a lot of positive and very unexpected effects on my scholarship (some time and space to think more deeply and critically, rather than the fast-paced overstimulated thinking of my younger scholarly self -- my new study helps too!), my personality (i've learned to be a calmer and to listen more) and on my relationships (staying in one place encourages slow and steady growth of deep friendships). i loved my twenties, but every birthday brings me a bit more peace, happiness and confidence.

my parent's are a good model of this as well. they were both very serious professionals until their early fifties, when they each did total about-faces in their jobs: my dad put his legal practice aside and took up a job running a social service agency in his community; my mom gave up fashion & textile design (less willingly -- the industry was failing and she was one of the only ones left doing her particular craft within it) to do something kind of corporate, and kind of managerial based on her personal experience caring for her very old and sick parents for 10 years.

i think there is a lot of fear involved in thinking about the future -- for instance, i think both of my parents would have freaked out at 40 if they knew what they'd be doing at 51. i am pretty confident i'll get tenure, but am scared to death about what i'll do if i don't. my partner, who has been underemployed (by choice) for 10 years is now facing full time work come september -- a very scary prospect for someone who doesn't quite know how she'll manage. and this is the key thing, i think -- the inability to imagine not only making a choice, but also following it through.

but hey, that's what your twenties are for, right?

Historiann said...

Thanks for the shout-out, Flavia. It sounds like you have two sane, balanced, and supportive parents. That's a big advantage in life.

Sort of O/T, but your comments here make me think that there are a lot of us midlifers (in our 30s, 40s, 50s) who are looking to our parents once again as guides or role models for retirement and aging. We're looking to our parents to learn again from them, I think. I for one now completely understand the cliche that "as long as you have your health. . . " it's all good.

Susan said...

In my family, the relative stability of academic jobs is unusual. My parents have both done lots of different things in their lives, and both been happy, if not wealthy. (My mother has just - in anticipation of moving to my much cheaper city -- stopped working part time.) Even when I've felt stuck in my life, I remember that my grandmother started a new business in her early 60s, which she ran until her late 70s.

I think it is much harder to see this when you're in your 20s, just because everything feels a bit "life and death", and I at least always envied the people who had it all sorted out.

Flavia said...

Okay, first of all, I don't know why two of these three comments aren't showing up unless you click on "post a comment"--have been having problems with comments appearing/registering lately, so anyone who knows anything about what might be wrong is welcome to advise!

Now to actual responses.

I think Historiann's right, as Rachel and Susan's comments also suggest, that we start looking to our parents' (and other older family members') lives for guidance as we age. I'm sure I didn't see either of my parents' lives as explicitly meaningful models when I was younger, except insofar as they're great people, happily married, etc.

My dad obviously has different skills and career interests than I do, and my mom--from whom I clearly got my interest in history and literature--stayed at home for the first 15 years of my life. Then she wound up at a small law firm where she worked in various staff capacities for 18 years.

If she hadn't gotten married right after college, and then had kids, she might have gone to law school or had more of a career, and I suppose some people might fixate on that as a loss. But it was really inspiring to me to see how much she loved going back to work and being valued in that sphere, and how it was possible for her to make a major shift from being exclusively a homemaker (which she was great at) to being a professional.

So yeah. As I get older, I see the lessons in the bigger patterns, rather than in the details.

Danielle said...

Thanks for this post. It gives me hope that things can still get better after college... and grad school :)

Azulao said...

Tell your dad "thanks" for me. His kind words that "no decision is bad if it was made for good reasons at the time" have definitely poured some balm on a sore spot. You obviously have really nice parents, and they got the daughter they deserved too. :-)