Driving home from work the other night, I was heartened to see that gas prices had dipped below $3 a gallon. Then I thought, What am I so happy about? When I first started commuting 13 years ago, the price hovered at around $1.10.
This led me to wonder what it is about the human psyche that enables us to so dramatically adjust our perspectives over time. For instance, I get a little thrill when I see the number on the scale dip a few pounds, yet the weight I'm now satisfied with would have mortified me in my 20s. On the flip side, if someone told my college graduate self that I'd be where I am professionally today, I would have been ecstatic beyond my wildest dreams. While I'm certainly satisfied with my job, I'm now focused on what it demands: improving my reporting skills, getting the scoop, and covering a story from a unique angle.
Does this sort of changed thinking make me a happier person or less satisfied? I'm not sure, but my personal reflections happened to coincide with a new study out this week that offers some insights. It shows that the young and the old in the United States and 71 other countries have a greater sense of well-being than do middle-agers; American women reach their peak level of unhappiness when they're 38 years old —which gives me a year until I hit rock bottom. (Men land at their lowest point at age 53.)
The researchers don't really know how to explain the U-shaped curve but speculate that it could be explained by adjustments we make to our expectations over time. Happiness when we're young, they say, may be due to outsize hopes and ambitions. "People start out their lives thinking they can conquer their own particular Everest," says study coauthor Andrew Oswald, a professor of economics at the University of Warwick in Great Britain. In middle age, we dial back our dreams and arrive at a more realistic assessment of our potential. That can be pretty depressing. By the time we hit our twilight years, though, we've reached a sort of peace with ourselves. We might also better appreciate the blessings of life itself after seeing loved ones and close friends pass away.
For middle-aged women in particular, expectation adjustment may include giving up the Superwoman myth and accepting that real women with jobs and kids can't have it all. Something has to give, whether it's the work or the family or the health. (I write this as I work from my home computer, hacking away from a severe cold, my son lying nearby with a stomach virus.) "American women have particularly high aspirations for professional life as well as their family life, which is great but makes incredible demands on their time," says Oswald. This could explain why happiness levels have decreased for white American women over the past 30 years as more moms hit the workforce, whereas they've remained the same for white men. (Black men and women have experienced an increase in happiness, but their levels are still below those of whites.)
Is there anything women can learn from this study to make themselves a little happier? "There's no magic solution that we have for avoiding the midlife dip," Oswald informs me. "But perhaps knowing about its existence might help some people realize that it's quite normal to have a bad patch." And that things should get better again with age.