I wrote earlier in my other blog about the cover story of the December, 2014 Atlantic on happiness in midlife. Jonathan Rauch, the author of the article, describes the “happiness U-curve,” a graph of data from numerous studies showing a decline in life satisfaction during early adulthood that reaches a nadir in the forties, but then increases. A possible reason for this pattern is that a reappraisal of ourselves and our achievements occurs in midlife. We realize that we are not exceptional, a somewhat painful insight. Our accomplishments seem not to amount to much compared either with our prior expectations or the accomplishments of others. Increased awareness of our mortality further diminishes our sense of satisfaction with what we’ve done. In the end, we have a diminished sense of ourselves and reduced expectations for the remainder of our lives.
A study by Princeton economist Hannes Schwandt described in the Atlantic article provides evidence that after our forties most of us do in fact come to have more modest expectations for our lives. Participants in a German longitudinal survey were asked to rate their current life satisfaction and to estimate what they thought their life satisfaction would be five years in the future. Younger participants consistently overestimated how satisfied they would be five years hence. Thus, they were disappointed when, after five years, life hadn’t lived up to their expectations. In contrast, older participants consistently underestimated how satisfied they would be in the future. They were pleasantly surprised when things turned out better than they expected. The most difficult time was in between; at some point in the forties, a person is likely to both be disappointed that their previous hopes for the present hadn’t been met, and to have diminished expectations for the next five years. This combination of disappointment about the present and pessimism about the future seems to correspond with the low point in the happiness U-curve. Schwandt found that, by their fifties, participants were more often exceeding their earlier expectations, and life satisfaction was increasing.
We who are in our sixties or beyond may not remember having gone through this midlife slough, but many of us probably did. How, though, did we manage to adjust our expectations downward? Many of us gave something up that we hoped would come to fruition but never did. In my case, it was a marriage that I was trying to salvage and career aspirations that, if they were achievable at all, weren’t worth the sacrifices they would have entailed. To give up long-cherished dreams is to go through a grief process. We experience a variety of reactions to the loss—sadness at the death of the dream, uncertainty over whether we should try to resurrect it, disquiet at the void left behind, anger at the circumstances that contributed to the dream’s death, and disappointment with ourselves for the mistakes we made along the way. This grief is like an antiseptic that cleans the wound so that it can heal and we can move on.
So, when in later adulthood we face the possibility of additional losses, it can be useful to remember that loss is not unfamiliar to us. Most of us have already grieved over many hopes we had as young adults and have laid them to rest. We know how to mourn and how to move on. As an age group, we who are elderly have more expertise in grief and acceptance than any other cohort.