When discussing happiness researchers often describe a U shaped curve.
The idea is that you begin your adult life happy and then as you pile on the responsibilities (career, children, caring for aging parents, mortgages) your happiness slowly slides down into the dumps before recovering in your fifties-or-so when you get your freedom back.
Certain rabid childfree people view this curve as evidence that children ruin your life. I think that’s nonsense. But I do suspect our responsibilities can weigh us down in ways we hadn’t anticipated. When you’re trudging through a job that has lost it’s luster and you never have time for yourself but you can’t change anything because you’ve got kids to feed and a house to pay for and you’re mired up to the neck in obligations… yeah, I can see how that might bring you down.
Does feeling locked-in get in the way of our happiness? Possibly. Then again I’ve always valued my freedom.
P and I are jettisoning responsibilities left and right at the same time that our peers seem to be doubling down on theirs. We’re working less and spending less. And we’re shying away from anything that feels like a long term commitment. Meanwhile many our friends are raising kids, investing in their careers, upgrading their homes and cars, and sinking their roots down deep into the earth.
As far as I can tell we’re all pursuing happiness in our own ways. And that’s good! But does our concept of happiness change as we get older?
When we are in our twenties and thirties most of us are just trying to get by. We’re working to keep our bills paid and our selves fed. We’re trying to build our careers. And if you want kids human biology says you’d better get started.
And then you enter your forties and you see that the decisions you made over the last decade or two have worn certain ruts into your life. If you birthed some kids you’ll spend the next ten to twenty years caring for them. If you’ve built a good career, chances are that it’ll be hard to switch without a big cut in pay.
You’ve built a life for yourself, but is it still the life you want?
Boom! That question tosses you into the throes of the midlife transition.
Old choices that seemed smart at the time may feel constraining.
Old dreams may resurface and haunt us.
Security and sameness might become less appealing.
You might do something crazy!
Pop culture says that we’ll punctuate this time with a shiny red convertible or an extramarital affair but I disagree. Instead midlife can be the time when we finally give ourselves permission to pursue the dreams we set aside in the pursuit of responsible adulthood. It’s a time to bring excitement into our lives while also appreciating the goodness that’s already there.
That sounds great, but getting there can be tricky.
Losing my ambition and struggling with my priorities and reanimating old dreams and getting rid of stuff… those were my emotional equivalents to the shiny red convertible. And it’s brought me to a new perspective on what happiness is and where it comes from.
I’m feeling excited about my next few decades for a new set of reasons. My responsibilities are fairly light. I’m doing some of the things I always said I wanted to do but never really made time for. I’m still madly in love with my husband. My health is good and my boobs are still pretty high up on my chest. Climate change may be coming to kill us all BUT IT’S NOT HERE YET and the trees are blooming outside my window.
The future may be as uncertain as ever but the right-this-minute is rather sublime.
The right-this-minute is where I’ve been finding my happiness lately. I’m done living for the future (although I’ll be responsible). I’m done worrying about the past (although I’ll appreciate the lessons).
Growing up isn’t easy. I think that’s as true in your thirties as it is when you’re sixteen. And why do we like to pretend we’re done growing up when we settle down with a mortgage and a car? How silly is that?
That’s my latest aha moment. Happiness lives in the right-this-minute.
My heart says Wow!
My heart says Yes!
Perhaps getting older isn’t so bad after all.
PS: Where does happiness live, for you? And has it changed as you’ve gotten older?