June 2018

The “U” Curve

Author: Becca Edwards

You. You are an individual. “You-nique” if you will. And yet, chances are, despite your “you-ness,” you’re not that much different from me or anyone else when it comes to relative happiness throughout a lifetime. Apparently, the relationship between age and happiness/satisfaction, follows a “U” curve, with most people experiencing the least amount of contentment in their mid 40s to early 50s. “Ages zero to 25 you are learning who you are; ages 25 to 60 you spend your time proving who you are; and finally, ages 60 to 90 you accept who you are,” said Dr. Jocelyn Evans, of Island Psychotherapy.

About the “U” Curve
The bottom portion of the “U” curve is what many refer to as “midlife crisis,” a term that often conjures up stereotypical images like that of a middle-aged person with a brand-new sports car, complete with a corny vanity plate and young, blonde-haired passenger. But, what if I told you not only is this visual unfair, but it is also based on a misnomer? For starters, the midlife point for humans differs based on several factors including nationality, health history and lifestyle—just to name a few variables.
Secondly, the word “crisis” implies an intense difficulty. The good news is, most people do not have their world come crashing down in their 40s or 50s. However, many people do report a general malaise or sense of lacking in their personal and professional life during this time. It is as if nothing is good enough—even if everything is going more or less well. Inasmuch, according to Evans, “Men and women experience the beginning of the downturn differently. Females usually experience it at around age 28, while males around age 32.”

Influencing factors
Also, erroneously, many assume we take an emotional dip in our 40s and 50s because of factors such as marriage, children, career, financial concerns, the aging process and health. Though these are noteworthy stressors, Evans aptly argues that any time a person undergoes a life change, he or she works through a transition. “Having babies is a game-changer, just as getting married or starting a new career,” she explained. This is why she encourages people to seek help at all pivotal points in life. “A therapist can objectively reduce ‘catastrophizing.’” “Catastrophizing” is Evan’s original term for essentially making a mountain out of a mole hill—something that is common, especially during “middle age.”

But what if you are boring? (By the way, at my age and stage, I take boring as a compliment. I am done with surprises.) What if nothing significant really changes in your life? What if you have nothing to “catastrophize” about? According to The Atlantic contributor Jonathan Rauch, you are not exempt. The “U” curve might just be animalistic. In a compelling article titled “The Real Roots of Midlife Crisis,” Rauch wrote: [Andrew Oswald of the University of Warwick] and two primatologists, found a U-shaped curve in chimpanzees’ and orangutans’ state of mind over time. Zookeepers, researchers, and other animal caretakers filled out a questionnaire rating the well-being of their primate charges (more than 500 captive chimps and orangutans in Australia, Canada, Japan, Singapore, and the United States). The apes’ well-being bottomed out at ages comparable, in people, to between 45 and 50. “Our results,” the authors concluded in a 2012 paper, “imply that human wellbeing’s curved shape is not uniquely human and that, although it may be partly explained by aspects of human life and society, its origins may lie partly in the biology we share with closely related great apes.”

In the same article, Rauch interviewed Dr. Dilip V. Jeste, a distinguished psychiatrist and one of the country’s most prolific geriatric psychiatrists. Rauch wrote, “[Jeste] and his colleagues use magnetic-scanning technology and batteries of psychological tests to peer into the brain for clues to how the mind and emotions work.” Jests’ research suggests wisdom might not just come from experience, but may also be biological. He argues it is a means to offering value to the youth, writing, “The traits of the wise tend to include compassion and empathy, good social reasoning and decision making, equanimity, tolerance of divergent values, comfort with uncertainty and ambiguity. And the whole package is more than the sum of the parts, because these traits work together to improve life, not only for the wise, but also for their communities.”

Other research points to cortisol levels. Cortisol is a steroid hormone that regulates a wide range of processes throughout the body, including metabolism and the immune response. It also has an important role in helping the body respond to stress. At a certain point in life, typically around ages 50 to 60, we might actually produce less cortisol and or biologically respond to it differently than in our younger years, essentially making us more homeostatic and level-headed.

Rolling with the “U” Curve
Thankfully, there are some tricks to managing the seemingly inevitable “U” curve. According to Evans, “The pursuit of happiness begins when you do not care so much about the pitcher that is holding the water but about the water.” Evans also quoted the Serenity Prayer, which reads, “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.”

Acceptance, coupled with staying present, truly does lead us down a path to happiness. “Stay in the moment,” Evans said. “See a stop sign when you start going down the rabbit hole of judging. Notice all five senses.”

Evans also advises people to realize they are not alone. Knowing that the “U” curve is a pattern in life, “helps us endure it and know that this, too, shall pass.”

Lastly, Evans believes movement not only has an impact on our physical wellbeing but also our mental wellness. “Always exercise. I do not care if you are in a wheelchair, you have to move and activate the good neurotransmitters. Even if it is only five minutes.”

Becca Edwards is a wellness professional, freelance writer, and owner of b.e.WELL+b.e.CREATIVE (bewellbecreative.com).

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