If you had to guess what the best era of a life would be, you might say being young and without responsibilities or old with a retirement fund. It turns out that for a lot of people, the best part of their life is the slog of middle-age.
Writer and Reverend Lydia Sohn decided to interview members of her congregation in their 90s, curious about what their perspective on life was now that they’d seen most of it. In her Medium post on their responses, Sohn mentions something called “The U-bend of Life”, which has been a popular idea since 2010, when the concept went viral via an article in the Economist.
The U-bend of Life is the idea that people statistically get happier in their 70s, with the worst periods of depression ranging from our late 20s until about 46. This was dubbed “middle-age-misery”, born of all the anxieties and responsibilities of work, money and family that tend to cluster around this time period.
But Sohn writes that across the board, when she asked these older folks what they considered their happiest time, it fell right in that big U of stress:
Every single one of these 90-something-year-olds, all of whom are widowed, recalled a time when their spouses were still alive and their children were younger and living at home. As a busy young mum and working professional who frequently fantasizes about the faraway, imagined pleasures of retirement, I quickly responded, “But weren’t those the most stressful times of your lives?” Yes of course, they all agreed. But there was no doubt that those days were also the happiest.
Sohn posits that happiness isn’t so much a feeling of peace, but a “state of fulfillment, meaning, or abundance”. It’s also possible that it isn’t something we can necessarily appreciate while it’s happening, but only when we’re looking back on it.
If that’s kind of a bummer, Sohn also discovered something we probably don’t think much about ageing — it’s a lot easier when you don’t consider yourself hot. Her interviewees mostly only seemed upset about getting visibly older if they had a high opinion of their looks when young:
Those who were valued for their good looks or athleticism experienced much more grief in regards to their current bodies than those who derived confidence from qualities that were much less time-fixed. One interviewee, for example, was well-known in her community for being a writer and columnist in local newspapers. When I asked her if she was saddened by her ageing appearance, she responded, “Well, I never thought I was pretty to begin with so, no.”
If people were upset about ageing for reasons of vanity or lost prowess, they mostly experienced grief about it in their 70s, but it gradually faded away. If you live to your 90s, quite a lot of things get put in perspective, apparently. So we all have that to look forward to! In the meantime, try to enjoy where you’re at, no matter how aggravating it is.