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Don’t Berate Yourself If You’re Feeling Stressed or Lost

Research shows that happiness steadily declines from our 20s until our late 40s or early 50s. If you're in this range and feel stressed, you're not alone.

Like many “aha moments” in life, the idea for this post came about through a confluence of events within the past week or so. This is also one of those times when I need to take a dose of my own medicine!

I’ve just finished the book, The Happiness Curve, by Jonathan Rauch. It’s an interesting read that brings together the results of numerous studies that show our happiness steadily declines from our 20s until our late 40s or early 50s, before steadily climbing back up through the end of our life. Among the reasons for this decline are stress resulting from our careers and raising children, but also because we may struggle during this time to understand our purpose for existing. During these decades, we may find ourselves thinking, “There’s got to be more to it than this.”

And as we age, the studies show that we may be less burdened by stress, we likely begin to understand our life’s purpose, and we do a better job of living in the present. We begin to find joy in helping others, and there is less desire to continue to race up the career ladder. We start to care less about what other people think of us. The research found that we also begin to focus more on the few most valuable relationships in our lives, realizing that we have fewer years ahead of us than we do behind us. Perhaps surprisingly, these findings even applied to some older people that had serious illnesses.

Of course, not every person experiences this “U” in happiness. And for those that do, it the duration may be different, and the age at which it bottoms may vary. But, generally speaking, the research indicates that this is a common finding around the world. The book also says this is not a “midlife crisis,” which implies one or two acute events, but a “midlife transition” that happens over decades.

Within the past two weeks, while reading this book, this exact same topic came up with a friend of mine while we were talking one day. He’s married with kids, healthy, and has a great job. But he alluded to feeling empty. He said he’d never really faced any significant struggle in his life. He mentioned not really feeling passionate about anything. And, much like the line above, he said, “Is this all there is?” Because I understood the gist of the book, I was able to assure him that many of us at this point in our lives have many of the same feelings, thoughts, and questions.

If I could go back to the conversation with my friend, I might say to him something along the lines of:

It’s okay to not know where you are or where you’re going.

It’s okay to struggle.

It’s okay to not be where you thought you’d be.

It’s okay to feel stress (parenting will do that to you).

Don’t berate yourself for feeling foolish or upset when so much is going right for you.

Goodness knows, times like these are a great opportunity to go back to square one – to appreciate all that is good in your life. And this is really the time to avoid comparing yourself to other people. Because of a job title, or working with a high-profile company, you may think your friends are happier than you. They might be, but I’d also bet they’re on the exact same “U” curve that you are.

Over the hill, or riding a chairlift to the peak?

Either way you look at it, I’d say good times are ahead! Not surprisingly, the book also referenced studies showing that stress levels follow a curve that is shaped like a hump - not the “U” of happiness. Stress levels gradually rise until that same age where happiness bottoms out, then drops off from there. When we think of it that way, over the hill sounds pretty good to me! So, bring on 50! No longer should we worry ourselves about getting older. With age will hopefully come less stress, more acceptance and contentment, and happiness with the “now.”

Smile, it’s a U curve!

For the positive people out there, it’s hard to not notice the “smile” of the happiness curve. Most things are easier said than done, and seeing the light at the end of the tunnel can be difficult when you’re up to your eyes in stress and uncertainty. I’m guilty of having to remind myself of that from time to time. For my younger readers, we may still be on the downward slope to happiness, but there is hope! And for my older readers, enjoy the long, peaceful chairlift to the top of the mountain!

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