Journalist Jonathan Rauch: The Biology of Happiness After 50

journalist Jonathan Rauch headshot

Jonathan Rauch is a prominent journalist, commentator, and the author of seven books—most recently, The Happiness Curve: Why Life Gets Better After 50, published in 2018 and coming out in paperback in spring 2019. A senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a regular writer for The Atlantic since 1989, he is recipient of the 2005 National Magazine Award, the magazine industry’s equivalent of the Pulitzer Prize. You can find him at www.jonathanrauch.com and www.happinesscurvebook.com, and on Twitter @jon_rauch.

As you explain in your latest book The Happiness Curve: Why Life Gets Better After 50, happiness is a U-shaped curve that hits its low point in midlife. Why is it important for us to know about the biology of happiness and the slump of middle age?

Jonathan Rauch: If you’re like most people, you probably know that the aging process affects your happiness (meaning not day-to-day mood but satisfaction with life overall)but chances are what you think you know is wrong.

Most people assume if we’re healthy and successful in midlife we’ll be happy, too; that if we’re not happy, it’s a midlife “crisis”; and that after 50 or so, our best years are behind us.

Reality is very different. Though individuals’ mileage will vary (because aging is far from the only thing that influences our emotional wellbeing), it turns out there’s a natural “happiness curve,” and it’s U-shaped, starting high in young adulthood but declining in midlife, then rising again in late adulthood, often to new heights.

The pattern has been found in countries and cultures around the world (rich, poor, and in between), in women and men (there’s no gender difference), and even in chimps and orangutans. So something pretty basic seems to be going on. What it means is that our standard stereotypes about aging are backwards. Middle age is a time of emotional vulnerability, when people need more support than they get; late adulthood is a time of emotional strength, when people have a ton to give.

Aging is often regarded as the slow and steady march of decline and loss. How might understanding of the U-curve impact not just individual perceptions of age but also societal tendencies toward ageism and age discrimination?

Jonathan Rauch: Ageism is rampant in the United States, Europe, and many other places. As early as primary school, kids learn that old people are sad and lonely; every day, adults compound the stereotype by acting ashamed of their age and using expressions like “senior moment.” Employers assume that older workers are less creative and adaptable, when in reality they’re not only equally productive but also make their younger colleagues more productive (a wisdom effect, it seems). As for “sad and lonely,” for most people the emotional peak of life is in late adulthoodthe seventh decade or even beyond.

False stereotypes not only lead to unfair discrimination against older people, they also make middle-aged people needlessly fearful and pessimistic, a serious contributor to midlife unhappiness. Understanding the U-curve lets us see late adulthood for what it is: a time of growth, of gratitude, and of giving back.

'False stereotypes not only lead to unfair discrimination against older people, they also make middle-aged people needlessly fearful and pessimistic, a serious contributor to midlife unhappiness.'Click To Tweet

Why should employers be aware of the U-curve, and what are some of the adjustments they ought to make in response?

Jonathan Rauch: Employers are in a particularly good position both to counter false stereotypes about aging and to reap the rewards of what Laura Carstensen, a Stanford University psychologist, calls “the gift”: the addition of more than a decade of healthy life in late adulthood.

'Employers are in a particularly good position both to counter false stereotypes about aging and to reap the rewards of the addition of more than a decade of healthy life in late adulthood.'Click To Tweet

Employers can include age in their diversity programs; encourage multi-generational teams and mentoring (in both directions); make sure training is available to workers of all ages; create positions and pathways for older workers who seek repurposing and “less-hard” jobs; train hirers who look at resumes to evaluate the person, not the age, and much more.

As Baby Boomers age, America is blessed with the wonderful resource of older people who want to keep working and giving, and employers are the key to developing and exploiting that resource. And, by the way, we can’t afford not to. When Americans routinely live past 80, paying them to sideline themselves at age 65 is fiscally irresponsible as well as socially wasteful.

'When Americans routinely live past 80, paying them to sideline themselves at age 65 is fiscally irresponsible as well as socially wasteful.'Click To Tweet

Which part of our Respectful Exits Longevity Agenda most resonates with you, and why?

Jonathan Rauch: I like the whole Longevity Agenda! Why choose?

I might add something, though. It’s importantmaybe most important of allto educate employers about the realities of aging, because breaking through false and negative stereotypes is the key to everything else.

Like Ashton Applewhite (whose anti-ageism manifesto “This Chair Rocks” I strongly recommend), I’d like to see government health agencies, school curricula, and cultural signals like advertising and movies (think about “The Intern”) do much more to reflect and teach what we know about aging. As a gay man born in 1960, I know a lot about discriminationincluding that the root cause is not animus, in most cases, but ignorance.

Our tool “ThePhazer” gives aging workers step-by-step guidance to request and obtain extended work and flexible and phased retirement options. How could knowing about the U-curve help make use of ThePhazer particularly effective?

Jonathan Rauch: The combination of extended longevity (soon, 100-year lives will be common), the changing nature of work (less emphasis on physical skills, more on social), and new science debunking old stereotypes (the discovery of the U-curve) has big implications. It’s going to force us to rethink aging both individually and as a society, with consequences that will be almost entirely good, but sometimes with bumps along the way.

It’s great to have tools to guide people and employers through the assessments and decisions we’ll have to make. Understanding the natural terrain of happiness and agingthe dip in midlife, the growth in gratitude and wisdom later onwill help everyone make the most of those tools.

photo credit: Jonathan Rauch

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