A dip in happiness at midlife is normal. To climb out, address what's missing.
Lately, some of my clients and I have been trying to make sense of this paradox. Society tells us that once we reach a certain level of professional accomplishment and financial security, we'll achieve happiness and fulfillment. Grind it out long enough in the law firm, in med school, on the trading floor, or at the construction site and you'll get there.
But many of us reach the place of "having it all" and we're not happy or fulfilled.
In this post, I'll share my story of "having it all" (except the happiness), the nagging question that prompted action, the Happiness U-curve, and, a question to help you get to the core of what might be missing.
I Had it All. So Why Wasn't I Satisfied?
For me, the process of creating a more fulfilled life started with a nagging question. I was in my mid-thirties and was looking around the office. My colleagues were all on the phone, totally engaged in their conversations. A thought came to my mind: Is this all there is? Is this what I'm going to do for the rest of my life? It was a private question. Not one I shared with anyone else-- but one that kept popping up again and again.
If I'm honest, the question confused and really frustrated me. Who was I to want more? I had it all already! Sure, work could be stressful. But I had a decent job where I could earn a healthy income- without insanely long hours. I liked my colleagues a lot. I have a wonderful husband and a supportive family. I had a baby at home, and another on the way. Despite the regular frustrations in life, I couldn't really complain.
I felt guilty about being unhappy. In the context of the larger world-- with its gross inequity and despair-- my unhappiness didn't feel worthy of attention. The long list of my privileges made me criticize myself for not being happy with what I had. I am as lucky as they come. So, why wasn't I happy?
And it wasn't that I was depressed. Rather, I felt a general sense of malaise and disconnection. I was blah. Meh. Every day was the same. I was pulled along at a fast pace, rushing from one thing to the next. Even the weekends were a hustle- from one social visit to the next. Tending to everyone's needs. Except, I later learned, my own. Even though I was in my late 30s, I started referring to this as my midlife crisis.
I remember the moment I realized that something was off and had to be addressed. I was at the family cottage hosting an annual gathering of my best friends from childhood. Since we live in different countries, this group of women, along with our families, get together once a year. It is the event we look forward to every year. Everyone was having a blast- laughing endlessly, playing music, being silly. I was there. But, I wasn't there.
It was like I was watching from the outside. Like I wasn't truly "in it."
This did not feel right. I wanted to be fully "in" life- especially during the precious times. There was that nagging question again: "Is this all there is?"
The Happiness U-curve
Turns out midlife malaise is common. In fact, it's a phenomenon captured in scientific research, often referred to as the Happiness U-curve. Life satisfaction surveys show a significant decrease or dip in happiness during midlife with dissatisfaction peaking during the 40s. And then from there, an upward climb beginning around age 50.
My dip started early. I attribute this to the death of my father. When he died at age 59, I was 31 years old. It shocked me to realize that my life could be way shorter than previously considered. What if I only had 30 years left?
So, why the dip in happiness at midlife? Well, the research isn't conclusive on the "why," just the fact that it does exist. One theory is that midlife is usually the most stressful period in life. With performance demands at work, caregiving stressors of raising young children and tending to ageing parents, as well as social comparison to one's peers. These combine to leave mid-lifers feeling pulled and drained, tending to many needs and obligations outside themselves.
According to psychologist, Dr. Margit Henderson, as we age past the midlife chapter, "our focus turns away from social competition towards social connection". One theory is that when life's end is closer, we stop to savour things and express gratitude for the time that we have with the people we love. This phenomenon is also noted after life-threatening experiences, such as an illness or an accident. This is likely why I was jolted to consider life's big questions after my dad passed away at a relatively young age. (Lately, I've wondered how the pandemic might influence how we prioritize happiness in our lives going forward.)
So, can we jump the happiness curve? Make it less "blah." Can we skip to the part where we are living as though there's not much time left? Turns out, we can. But it takes some effort.
First, you have to get to the heart of what's missing and then you have to address it.
How to Move From “Is This All There Is? To “This is it. I Have it All”
Despite having it all, I was at the bottom of the U. I had everything you're supposed to have in life to be happy, but I wasn't. The loss of my father, coupled with my, now obvious, malaise, forced me to take stock. The rumblings of dissatisfaction could no longer be ignored. That weekend it all became apparent. If you're not happy on vacation with your besties, when will you be happy?
Now, I realized I was disengaged at work and at play. I asked myself a question that, looking back, was the first step to making change. A question that helped me get to the core of what was missing. It's one that I often ask my clients, so I know it can help you too.
I asked myself this very simple question: what do you need?
For me, the word that came up was Purpose. That was the first clue that directed me up the curve. I'm curious, what is it for you? What do YOU need? Journal on that question for a few minutes and see what you unearth.
It is possible to jump the happiness curve. To move from "Is this all there is?" to "This is it. I have it all." But, you have to get to the core of what's missing. And what's missing for you isn't necessarily the same as what was missing for me. We each have our own unmet needs. We have physical needs, of course, but also many psychological and spiritual ones as well. (Listen to Episode 2 of The Wayfinding Podcast to learn more.)
If you want help identifying your unmet needs, download my free Naming Your Need activity from my vault on the internet. Once you sign up, you'll have access to any other free tools I add in the future.
If you have felt alone wondering "is this all there is?" know that you are not. The dip in happiness at mid-life is real. And you can make changes once you know what you need!
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