An Optimistic Thought

The Voyage of Life: Manhood, painted by Thomas Cole - see below for more about the painting

I feel guilty that most of my posts are just complaining – about government procurement, IT implementations, or even the difficulty of staying on top of our electronic lives.  Yet, I consider myself to be an upbeat person, so I want to share some thoughts on a book I’m listening to right now, because its optimistic message is worth hearing.


Disclaimer: All of the ideas expressed in this article are my personal statements and opinions, and do not reflect the opinions/statements of the City of Urbana.


The book is The Happiness Curve: Why Life Gets Better After 50, by Jonathan Rauch and here is the key point: the aggregate of many happiness studies (over the past few decades) show that happiness declines starting in our 20s, bottoms out in our 40s, and then increases again.

So, bummed out in your 40s? The wonderful message is “things will get better!” (Although as Mr. Rauch continually notes, actual results will vary – and everyone’s story is different.)

The book describes how this pattern shows up regularly in the mass of happiness surveys but was only recognized in the last few years as they began to aggregate larger datasets and use tools to normalize factors like health, education, income, etc. Here are examples...

(Credit for the picture above:

You can intuitively grasp some of the reasons why happiness decreases from 20 to 40. Creaky knees show us a picture of our own mortality. Raising kids drains your energy, patience, and bank account. Our careers fail to live up to the goals we hoped for.  Mr. Rauch describes other interesting theories, too. One I liked was that it’s a biological advantage for us to is to be optimistic early in our lives (otherwise we wouldn’t achieve anything), but by our 40s our experiences have tempered that optimism. 

Of course, the upward path in later life was what surprised everyone, even given the health challenges that increase with age. (There is a downturn around 80 - see the graphs above.)

One reason we grow happier after our 40s (that resonated with me) was that it’s a comparison of expectations vs. reality. The slope is pretty steep from our 20s to our 40s as reality falls below expectations. Mistakenly, we forecast that the downward slope will continue, but we’re not considering that age makes us better at regulating our emotions and reactions. The point is not that our circumstances improve after 40 – it’s our attitude towards them that changes.

Importantly, it's also true that our circumstances are better - we have vastly improved health care and lifestyles that do not require heavy physical labor.  Imagine someone in their 40s three hundred years ago and think about the toll on their body from daily labor (at home, in a shop, in the fields) and lack of medical care. 300 years ago, people in their 40s had a reason to dread the time ahead! And in many parts of the world, that’s still true.  

So, if you’re in your 40s take a deep breath and relax  If you’re younger than 40, then maybe you’ll understand it better when it happens to you. And if you’re on that upward curve in the second half, then smile knowingly and know that it might only get better.

Do I recommend the book? Yes, but not for everyone. The book delves deeply into its theories, with a decent amount of math and data analysis thrown in. On the plus side, Mr. Rauch balances that with personal narrative and stories of other people’s lives – and nicely weaves in the tale of how a series of researchers “discovered” the curve. Still, it’s not a short book, and some parts seem to drag on with redundant discussions. So my suggestion is to try one of these articles first, then decide if you want to read the book. 


Explanation of the picture: Mr. Rauch references the “Voyage of Life” series of 4 pictures by Thomas Cole. The pictures tell a story about life in 4 stages, which is described by the author here: He suggests that now we should have a fifth picture of those happy later years (between the 3rd and 4th paintings) although to me that just reinforces that this is a modern luxury, not available in the 1800s when Cole painted them. On a personal level, the use of these pictures hit home for me - these are favorites of my Father, too. In my teen years he gave me “Youth” to hang in my room, while he put “Manhood” in his office. In retrospect, I think this was as a warning to me, and as a comfort to himself. It's in that spirit that I use the picture here; as a reminder that this is something each of us goes through - we might be alone in the boat, but we're all going down the same river.

Explanation of the title: I remember being very down at one point in college, and finding great solace in the lyrics to the Blues Traveler song “Optimistic Thought.” Here's the chorus, and below that a video. Since it's Blues Traveler, don't miss the harmonica solo at 1:30.

Life I embrace you/ I shall honor and disgrace you / Please forgive if I replace you / You see I'm going through some pain / But now I see clearly / And the dawn is coming nearly / And though I'm human and it's early / I swear I'll never forget again