During a recent visit to the doctor, I casually dropped into the conversation that I seemed to have turned into a hypochondriac.
“Are you worrying about flying more?” she asked.
“Yes!” I squeaked with relief, certain that this must be a symptom of something serious, as I ran her through the recent spate of deaths of family friends.
She glanced at my notes and identified the root cause of my anxiety. I was in my forties and becoming aware of my mortality.
Rather than do anything rash, Rauch hunkered down, treading water as 40 became 45, 46 and so on, until, ‘inexplicably’, he cheered up
This sounded remarkably like a midlife crisis, though my doctor was too polite to describe it as such. After all, no one wants to be a bad joke with Harley-Davidsons and adulterous affairs as punchlines. Such crises are surely the ultimate self-indulgence for people with nothing to fret about: those whose safety is secure and who know not just where their next meal is coming from but their snacks and cocktails too. In an age of increased longevity, when more of us will celebrate our 100th birthdays than in the past, are the forties mid-life?
And yet I’d listened to enough forty-something friends and colleagues confessing heartfelt angst, pondering a switch in career, desiring greater meaning in their jobs or panicking that they must achieve more. I had tickled the tummy of puppies that friends had acquired as the youngest child entered puberty in a last-ditch desire to feel needed — or, to paraphrase Nora Ephron — liked. Each with a growing realisation that the clichés were true: life is no dress rehearsal and it better be well-lived.
If their (my) worries are right, how can they (I) find a path out of the malaise? It was with a fierce hunger that I seized on three new books aimed at the forty-something reader.
The Happiness Curve, by Jonathan Rauch comes served with hope, empathy and lashings of behavioural economics. It is also the latest book with a yellow jacket and a title promising happiness — previously (to name but a few), Shawn Achor’s The Happiness Advantage, Gretchen Rubin’s The Happiness Project, and before that, the founder of the positive psychology movement, Martin Seligman’s Authentic Happiness.
The former journalist, now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, explores the concept of the midlife crisis, coined more than 50 years ago by Canadian psychoanalyst Elliott Jaques, who discovered it while looking at the struggles of creative talents such as Dante and Gauguin. In his 1965 article “Death and the Midlife Crisis”, he concluded that midlife turmoil “not only occurs in creative genius, but manifests itself in some form in everyone”.
As Rauch writes: “Popular culture seized upon Jaques’s basic concept, or at any rate his pithy phrase, and ran with it, quickly transforming it into a cliché.”
Interweaving personal stories with research by behavioural economists (and personal stories about behavioural economists), Rauch finds discontented forty-somethings whom Jaques might have identified as experiencing a midlife crisis and who are embarrassed to admit their feelings. Take the example of Karl, the father of three young kids who, at 40, has no time for a midlife crisis. “He is a vibrant, fully functional individual who is, in many ways that count, living his dream. No, not depressed: dissatisfied. And dissatisfied about being dissatisfied. And, he says, scared.”
Rauch is an empathetic author: he knows what it is to be nagged by unease. When he arrived at his forties, he became plagued by a feeling that he was wasting his life. This despite having achieved all the things he dreamt of in his twenties. He had published books, won prizes, made speeches. He was in possession of good health and solid finances. What was more, he was in a loving relationship with the man who would become his husband. In short, he should be “bursting with fulfilment”.
Instead, a “parasitic wasp” buzzed around his brain, asking him questions like “How come I’m not on the Sunday talk shows?” “How come I’m not in charge of something, like a business?” This, despite never having had any desire to do these things in the past.
Rather than do anything rash, he hunkered down, treading water as 40 became 45, 46 and so on, until, unexpectedly and “inexplicably”, Rauch cheered up. “The timing was strange, to say the least”, he writes. After all, his mother had died when he was in his late forties; his father too, soon after; and at 50, he was made redundant.
Others might have seen this perverse change in mood as an indication that Rauch had gained perspective; yet for the author, it leads him to explore the work on a mid-life U-shaped happiness curve by behavioural economists, such as Andrew Oswald and Danny Blanchflower, Hannes Schwandt and the Nobel Prize-winner Angus Deaton. This posits that “life satisfaction tends to decline gradually after early adulthood, bottom out in middle age [or 40s], then gradually rebound after”.
The book is a clear summation of the latest thinking on wellbeing and behavioural economics, deftly brought to life with case studies — though for the reader accustomed to the research much of the material will not be new.
Rauch’s interpretation of the studies is fresher. He sees it as a “social adaptation, a slow-motion reboot of our emotional software to repurpose us” towards wisdom, or “realised knowledge”, something described by philosopher Isaiah Berlin as knowing “what can be done in given circumstances and what cannot, what means will work in what situations and how far”.
Rather than a crisis, which implies a shortlived traumatic phase, Rauch demands that we see it as a protracted malaise. The forties, he writes, is a transition, much like puberty, and he makes an impassioned case for seeing it as a defined life-period — after all, 150 years ago, we didn’t use the term “teenagers”.
Rauch advises against impulsive decisions and urges people to take their discontent seriously, to discuss it with others who feel their pain.
One such person is Pamela Druckerman, the Paris-based American author who had a hit in 2012 with French Children Don’t Throw Food. In its wake came a parenting war, via books such as Achtung Baby: An American Mom on the German Art of Raising Self-Reliant Children and The Danish Way of Parenting: What the Happiest People in the World Know About Raising Confident Children.
Druckerman’s latest book, There Are No Grown-Ups, takes as its starting point her slow acceptance of adulthood, so when she thinks, “Someone should do something about that”, she realises with alarm that “someone” is her. Nonetheless the feeling nags that she has been promoted beyond her competence.
The book chronicles Druckerman’s progression through her forties, tackling children, work, cancer, friendships and threesomes. In doing so, she learns self-acceptance but also that other adults are winging it too.
The decade sees her move from thinking “everyone hates me” to “they don’t really care”. While men facing midlife crises might be mocked for sports cars and affairs, at least they are visible. Women’s experiences have too often been ignored — it is a frequent complaint that they feel invisible as their faces crease with age.
The book tackles the stuff of forty-something lives: children, work, friendships, parents, clothes, sex and health. She is bracingly honest. When the author discovers she has blood cancer, she confronts not just her mortality but the quality of her friendships.
“Getting ill is a crash course in other minds. I learn that there are people who secretly love bad news, and that certain women will be jealous of how skinny you are, no matter what’s causing it. A surprising number of people urge me to get a pedicure. The woman who’d worn a white dress to my wedding doesn’t contact me at all.”
The doomsayers who tell Druckerman of friends who have died of the same disease are both horrifying and recognisable but there are also those who hold her “aloft above despair... they feel like wartime comrades”.
When she gets the all-clear, she realises that after a life imagining worst-case scenarios, she doesn’t disintegrate or upend her life. In fact, it continued as normal, as she writes with understatement: “I walked home from my treatments and cooked dinner for my kids.”
Druckerman’s life is conventional inasmuch as she has kids and a husband. Glynnis MacNicol’s No One Tells You This: A Memoir explores what it is to be a forty-something single and child-free woman, contemplating a life without children in a decade in which women have to confront their ebbing fertility.
The Canadian journalist has a clear-eyed way of dealing with emotions: head-on. She describes becoming preoccupied with whether she could meet a potential father to a child in the run-up to her 40th birthday. Or whether she should avail herself of fertility treatments and have a child on her own.
At the same time MacNicol was burnt-out as a New-York media reporter chasing clicks. “I was almost as consumed with the idea of getting away as I was with the conviction I was running out of time. Not travelling per se, just leaving.”
That inner voice became noisier and noisier until she could no longer ignore it, packing in her reporting job and holing up in her apartment watching Golden Girls and burning through her savings.
With no certainties, she has infinite possibilities, which is freeing and paralysing. “This is why people have babies,” she writes, “because it’s exhausting not to know what you’re supposed to do next. A baby is basically a non-negotiable map for the next two decades.”
Deciding to become a parent as an “insurance policy against some future remorse I couldn’t yet imagine” seemed wrong too. The author is acutely perceptive on the mythology of motherhood and the chasms that can open between those with kids and those without.
As she weighs up parenthood, she finds herself wanting to know why her mother had decided against a career. Yet as her mother’s health declines, she wrestles with the fact that her questions will go unanswered. MacNicol writes movingly about the frustrations. “I had been so determined not to live my mother’s life, and now that I was as far away from it as I possibly could be, and confronting all the complications that had arisen from my decisions, I found myself curious to know why my mother had chosen what she had, and whether she had wanted it or had simply never considered there were other options.”
There are some lovely lines about death. It turns out, she writes, that “standing by death’s door, no matter how long you may spend there with a person, no matter how comfortable you think you are with its presence, is a great deal different than having that person walk through it.”
Mortality is the inescapable theme in all three books, as it is in life. By bringing it out into the open as they do, perhaps we can come to some kind of acceptance and greater wisdom. As MacNicol puts it: “No one knows what they’re missing in the end. You can only live your own life, and do your best with the outcome when you roll the dice.”