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.