Does life begin at 46?

Conventional wisdom about life’s journey, suggests The Economist magazine, is that our path is “a long slow decline from sunlit uplands towards the valley of death.” If so, then why is the cover of the magazine’s year-end issue headlined “The joy of growing old (or why life begins at 46)”?

To find out, look inside for an interesting piece about life’s “U-bend” (link here). Conventional wisdom, according to research, is wrong. True, we start off our adulthoods pretty happy and become increasingly disenchanted as middle age approaches. However, our outlook then gets better as we age.

The Economist cites research studies to back up its proposition, overcoming the presumption that this is more Boomer-inspired babble about how 60 is the new 40. For example, the article references a 2010 study by researchers from Stony Brook and Princeton universities, which found that:

Enjoyment and happiness dip in middle age, then pick up; stress rises during the early 20s, then falls sharply; worry peaks in middle age, and falls sharply thereafter; anger declines throughout life; sadness rises slightly in middle age, and falls thereafter.

Obviously such studies represent aggregate findings; plenty of folks fall outside of that pattern, and life’s ups and downs can occur at any age. But the research indicates that the U-bend is an independent phenomenon:

(C)ontrol for cash, employment status and children, and the U-bend is still there. So the growing happiness that follows middle-aged misery must be the result not of external circumstances but of internal changes.

What of age 46? It turns out that globally speaking, overall happiness levels bottom out at 46. And according to a British Labour Force Survey, respondents’ self-reporting of depression peaked at 46.

Emotional intelligence improves with age

But wait! There’s even more good news (at least for anyone who is getting older, i.e., all of us). ScienceDaily reports on a UC-Berkeley study indicating that emotional intelligence improves with age (link here):

Their findings — published over the past year in peer-review journals — support the theory that emotional intelligence and cognitive skills can actually sharpen as we enter our 60s, giving older people an advantage in the workplace and in personal relationships.

According to lead researcher Robert Levenson:

“Increasingly, it appears that the meaning of late life centers on social relationships and caring for and being cared for by others. . . . Evolution seems to have tuned our nervous systems in ways that are optimal for these kinds of interpersonal and compassionate activities as we age.”

What does this mean for work and workplaces?

The aging workforce presents lots of challenges in terms of compensation & benefits, emerging retirement and labor market transition questions, and the like. But this research indicates a benefit as well. Our workforce has the capacity to become wiser, more compassionate, and happier. Maturity, it turns out, can be our ally. It would behoove us to take advantage of this promise as we weigh the kind of workplaces we want in a post-Great Recession society.

It also means that we can pursue vocations and avocations with a better idea of what kind of work brings us happiness, satisfaction, and fulfillment. We do not necessarily have total control over this question. Bills must be paid. But to the extent we have choices, they can be informed by our wiser understanding of what is important in life.

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Some related posts:

Will our avocations save us?

Work and the middle-aged brain

What will be your body of work?

Are you a marathoner or a sprinter?

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Barring important news developments, I’ll be devoting the remainder of my posts this year to pieces envisioning a healthier society.

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