Saturday, May 12, 2018

Happiness curve

I recently read an article in the Guardian about the "Happiness Curve" — a concept that life satisfaction is highest during childhood, declines through adulthood until it bottoms out in our 40s, then begins to curve upward as we grow old. It's an interesting concept to ponder, as I stare down the long tunnel of middle age.

The author of a book about this curve told the Guardian, “The most surprising thing is that age tends to work in favor of happiness, other things being equal. The most strange thing is that midlife slump is often about nothing.”

More interesting than the article itself were the reader comments, which I admittedly spent a couple of hours reading. They ran the spectrum, but the general pattern was people in their 20s and 30s listing the reasons why they were justifiably miserable, people in their 40s declaring their financial and family status along with other permanent stressors, people in their 50s arguing strongly either for or against the happiness curve, and people in their 60s, 70s and 80s chiming in that yes, life is hard, but, actually, it's pretty good.

The unsurprising conclusions: Older people have had time to develop their sense of self and become secure in their values. They're prioritized relationships and experiences over achievements and status. They're more willing to live in the moment. Less driven to compete with others. No longer as beholden to the tyrannical whims of their hormones. More likely to feel gratitude for what they have, rather than yearn for what they don't have.

Of course, the golden years aren't an easy ride. There's a reason for the mantra "old age is not for the faint of heart." There's a lot of loss during that period of life, declining health, pain and sickness, reckoning with past regrets and imminent mortality.

Still, the point of the happiness curve theory is that these realities don't necessarily mean misery. Said one 73-year-old commenter whose husband is mostly bedridden and dying of a lung condition: "The other day he said to me: 'I feel like I’ve never been so happy in my entire life as I am right now.' I agree with the research! For us the past five years have been like a second honeymoon — a time of great joy — in spite of knowing his lungs are compromised and there’s no cure, short of a lung transplant (for which he’s too old)."

I was thinking about this article on Wednesday when I set out for a solo ride up Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park. I didn't want to let spring go by without squeezing in a ride up here, while road crews work to clear away many feet of snow and the higher elevations remained closed to vehicles. It's a Colorado spring classic, and Wednesday presented an ideal weather window.

As I pedaled into the park, I noted my fortune in having the freedom to spirit away on a day-long bike ride, on a weekday, on a whim. I don't feel like a care-free retiree — I still feel driven to do work, to fight for the things I value, to create. I still have goals and ambitions. And yet I acknowledge that, in some ways, I skipped over the middle part of life — ladder-climbing career, status-building, amassing wealth, raising children. I still have my father's pragmatic side and a plan if my current situation upends, but acknowledge that it doesn't carry the security a typical late-30-something desires. I already have health conditions to which I'll forever be shackled, so if I lose my health insurance, I'll have to do everything I can to gain it elsewhere. But I don't feel regret. I don't believe regret is coming for me, either.

The climb to 12,000 feet was long and tedious — at least, from an outside perspective. Nearly 20 miles, 5,000 feet of elevation gain, on a gravel-strewn paved road winding through woods and then snow-covered tundra. On the surface, I felt a dull ache from my shoulders — delayed-onset muscle soreness from a tough weight-lifting session the previous day. My broken toe felt pinched in a hard-soled boot. The weather at that altitude was unsurprisingly cold and windy, yet I chose to come underprepared and thus remained uncomfortable.

Below the surface, though, I felt strong. My recent thyroid numbers have all come within normal range, perhaps for the first time in years. All of the mental weirdness I was experiencing last year ... the brain fog, memory lapses, disconnected thoughts and inexplicable depression ... all of those symptoms that had me worried about declining cognition ... early-onset old age ... have evaporated. Just like that. For now, I'm not beholden to the tyranny of my hormones. It feels really good. Also, I can breathe!

Deeper still, I felt content. If pedaling my bike was something I could do all day, every day, I'd probably remain happy. It's not something I want to try, because I value my relationships, my efforts to create, my medications and food and other things I wouldn't be able to afford if I just rode a bike all the time. And yet, this aimless forward motion is enough to create deep satisfaction. I discovered this young, perhaps too young, as I drifted away from my career path at age 24 to ride an overloaded touring bike across the country. But I don't regret this either. I'm still involved in journalism where it matters to me. Sure, I am not super successful. I don't mind. Accolades and awards and the respect of my peers are other things I could probably skip altogether.

So what do I want? That Guardian article was a good prompt to consider what I most value in life: Meaning and truth. The first is why I keep moving forward, battling my nihilistic inclinations, even though I realize nothing will be resolved before my final breath. The second is even more cryptic, hidden behind flawed human perspectives and emotions. Yet it must exist. There must be a definitive answer to everything, even if hidden in layer upon layer of quantum mechanics, forever inaccessible. I suppose this is my discontent in life — that I'll never understand it.

Perhaps there's a life hack to this happiness curve, but I believe it lies closer to the early end of the spectrum. The awe, wonder, and magical possibility of children — these are perspectives we're all too prone to set aside in adulthood. There's good reason for this — such perspectives require a hefty dose of uncertainty, discomfort and fear. Once we've formulated a story that makes sense to us, it's too easy to become complacent. More gratifying than knowing something is the hunger to know it better.

I reached the end of the line for Trail Ridge Road — a big sign declaring the road was now closed to all users. Just around the curve and out of sight, I could hear heavy machinery working and figured the road was still buried in 12 feet of snow beyond that point. Not quite content to just head home, I descended all the way to Little Horseshoe Valley and tried my luck on the gravel climb, Old Fall River Road. Near 10,000 feet I hit the first snow drifts. Still not content to stop, I waded through the mush, gingerly placing my tender foot. A few steps found purchase, but more often I crashed through rotten snow into thigh-deep holes with water at the bottom. The bike bogged down to its hubs, and I had to lift it up and plop it down with every step. This was dumb. But what was around the next corner? Beautiful mountain views! Maybe the next switchback would be more sun-exposed, with more open dirt. Curiosity drove me forward.

After a mile of mud and increasingly larger drifts, the road became entirely snow-covered. My toe was hurting. This was probably more walking than I'd done in the two weeks since I broke it, and it was not friendly walking. Finally the adult in me won over, grumbling as I retraced each uncomfortable step with my now-soaked feet and waterproof hiking boots filled with snow. Still, I kept looking over my shoulder. What was out there? I have to know, so I'll have to come back. I could say this of a thousand places. Millions of places if my life were long enough, but it's quite short. Still, if I can retain that childlike wonder, even if my body breaks down entirely, I think I could arrive at the end of my life happy.

Maybe this is the life hack: Skip the angsty fluff in the middle and embrace the sharp edges. Accept life for the absurd, novel, impermanent, fleeting, amazing thing that it is. As an 80-something commenter put it: "As far as I'm concerned, life is a huge amount of fun and if the old man with the scythe came to collect me in the next few minutes, I wouldn't feel I'd been short-changed." 


  1. One night I was sitting around a campfire with my husband in the middle of nowhere. I thought to myself "If I would die tonight I would die happy". Twenty years later that is my standard mantra now for happiness. Once you ever experience true happiness it is hard to settle...

  2. Hmm, interesting. I would agree with some of the points in the article, not all. I don't think I will be very happy with the limitations of old age. So much is invested in my ability to be outside doing things. Sometimes I wonder if I have it right--I slave away at a ten hour a day job because I don't want to be broke or dependent on others later on. But you find happiness where you can and I am doing an OK job at it.

    That's a ton of snow! Glad you are feeling better.

  3. “Skip the angsty fluff in the middle and embrace the sharp edges.” Love that line. Article rings somewhat true. Being sixty-eight I’ve come to realize that happiness is unfortunately found more often on the edges of life. The ultimate goal is to find that happiness in the middle. Great pic of your bike against the snow bank.

  4. I never understood why CA does not open highway 120 to cyclists before it opens to cars. Still closed as of today. WA does that on Hwy20...
    As for the life perspective at “older” age of 56 I find most happiness in giving, rather than accumulating. Just gave my Ti hardtail to my older son who never cycled and few weeks later he is doing 100 miles a week. I guess that makes both of us very happy! Congrats on stabilizing your biochemical balance.

  5. I learned a long time ago that life is a cluster--with good, bad, and everything in between. I can choose to focus on the good things or dwell on the bad. Every time I'm tempted to look longingly at the good things others have that I don't, I make myself look at the troubles that they have and generally decide I wouldn't change places if I had to take it all together. Once I came to that realization, I've seldom struggled with dissatisfaction. Life can be better after midlife!

  6. My childhood was misery but so far my 40s have been awesome. The older I get the better life gets. Whoever made that curve is, frankly, an idiot making a whole lot of assumptions about life. However I do have to feel sorry for a person for whom childhood was their Peak.

  7. This was really beautifully written. Other than around ages 12-23 I think I've been consistently pretty happy, even when in hindsight I realize I could have been happier. Life is good.


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