I remember the moment it hit me— something was seriously amiss.
My best friends from childhood, scattered in our daily lives across North America, had convened for our annual summer reunion, this year at my in-laws’ lakeside home.
We see each other once a year, always a celebratory affair. Everyone was laughing, playing, and talking non-stop. But I felt like I was on the outside, looking in.
"What was wrong with me?" I wondered. Nothing should make me happier than being with these people. My oldest friends, their partners who I love, and our kids— who all meld together as effortlessly as we did when we were children— in one place, together.
Now I’ve always been the more serious sort, loving the sad songs, writing poetry in my journal— but that wasn’t it. I wouldn’t say I was depressed. Just dull. Meh.
I thought it was work. Things were stressful as I planned to take time off with a baby on the way. And yes, I was pregnant. But it wasn’t that. I’d felt this way for a while. I only noticed it in this moment of reveling. The dull feeling was accentuated by the brightness around me.
“I need help” I said later that afternoon to one of my oldest confidants. “Things need to change.”
A dip in happiness at midlife, specifically in affluent Western cultures, is well-documented in research. Researchers report a “U” shape to subjective reports of happiness, the low point coming around the ages of 40 (for women) and 50 (for men).
Researchers and economists haven’t agreed on what the cause of the midlife happiness dip is. Some say the pursuit of material security at the height of our income generating years comes at the cost of our well-being (think long hours at the office and weekends attached to our devices). Others say it’s the realization that our youthful aspirations are not likely to come to fruition. Still others say it’s the recognition of mortality —the awareness of the timeline ahead.
Those resonate with me. It was something else as well.
My stumble into what I call the “midlife mehs” was slow, subtle and imperceptible at first. As time went on and life got more full, I got busier with work, raising a family, and acquiring assets that I had to maintain. I attribute my happiness dip to this— when you stop doing the things you love, you stop living a life you love. Cancelling a date with friends because the week has been so long. Doing work while on vacation because I didn’t want the emails to pile up while I was away. Passing up leisure pursuits because they weren’t convenient for the family’s schedule. Slowly I became irritable, tired, anxious and disengaged. I remember thinking to myself "Is this all there is? Is this all my life is going to be? Am I just going to get up every day and run this hamster wheel?" At the lowest point I couldn’t even answer the question “what brings you joy?” I forgot how to be happy.
Many of my clients share this feeling of being stuck and unfulfilled. It's an existential dilemma they're facing-- this question of what life they want to live. Their sense of disengagement and anxiety often bleeds from work to other parts of their life. They find themselves feeling irritable, passive, and frustrated. They don't want to settle. They want to thrive. They don't want to wait out the mid-life mehs. They want to do the work to design a life they love.
Now, the good news is that the "U" shape does eventually ascend again and many people, especially healthy ones, report a boost in happiness by age 60 that lasts well into old age. This is without any intentional actions to speed up the ascent. The better news, however, is that the mid-life mehs can be alleviated fairly painlessly, with conscious, personalized intervention.
You can take action to increase life satisfaction in mid-life. It's not a quick fix that happens overnight, but it's also not difficult. In fact, many of my clients find it really fun. I found it so fun I made a career out of it. And it doesn't require throwing security off a cliff. You can re-design your life in a responsible and prudent way, mapping and planning the best ways to your future.
Mid-life is a time of re-orienting yourself. Taking stock of who you are, what you want and how you want to live your life. Only after creating clarity on the life I wanted did I begin to take action. I didn't take significant actions until I had the confidence that my choices were well thought out, until I tested them. Many of my clients never take drastic action. For them the redesign happens internally and as a result, the external situation transforms.
My joyful life is very similar to the one I was already living, only with me fully present within it, embracing the richness of it all.
Photo by Cole Patrick on Unsplash