Open Book

The U-Curve of Happiness

Should Big Data Be Believed?

Magazine Issue
September/October 2018
A headshot of a man and the cover of "The Happiness Curve"

The Happiness Curve: Why Life Gets Better after 50
by Jonathan Rauch
St. Martin’s Press
244 pages


I spent a long time pondering why The Happiness Curve: Why Life Gets Better after 50 by Jonathan Rauch didn’t make me as happy as I’d hoped it would. After all, it offers a useful road map for identifying and normalizing some of the disquiet and anxiety that can overwhelm us in midlife, sometimes to the point of crisis. Moreover, its central message is—well—a happy one: if you find yourself suffering through a gloomy midlife slog in your 40s, just hold on. More likely than not, you’ll find a brighter landscape in your 50s and 60s.

That’s the gist of the U-curve theory of happiness, which Rauch features at the center of his book, a concept so simple it can be summed up with an emoji. Look at a smiley face and imagine it as a graph charting the arc of your perceived happiness from your 20s through your 70s. The rest is Rauch’s commentary.

As he explains it, starting in the early 2000s, researchers began noticing a curve resembling a smile as they plotted the results of large longitudinal studies that aimed to measure levels of individual well-being and satisfaction across the respondents’ lives. The data—which came from hundreds of thousands of men and women from around the world—told a story whose chapters roughly divided into decades. Most of us start off happy and optimistic in our 20s and 30s, the research suggested. That changes in our late 30s and early 40s as doubts and anxieties about our life choices begin to creep in, and the day-to-day stresses of increased responsibilities at work and home bring the U-curve of life satisfaction lower and lower. But then, as we head toward retirement in our 50s and 60s, the curve turns upward. Whether it’s the new freedoms of an empty nest and a pending retirement, or a sense of gratitude for just living as long as we have, we start feeling happier, more fulfilled.

Rauch, an award-winning journalist and author of several books on public policy, was drawn to this view of life’s trajectory by his own struggle with the midlife blahs. He confesses that as he approached 40—despite his impressive professional résumé, financial success, and stable romantic partnership with a man he loved—he was plagued by dissatisfaction and self-doubt. He berated himself nonstop, first for not measuring up to even more successful peers, and second for not being sufficiently grateful for what he had. Wracked with guilt and confusion, he felt lost in a fog. At one point, he confided in his diary, “Why don’t I walk around filled with fulfillment?”

Then, as he neared 50, the negative self-talk that had filled his head for the past decade began to diminish, for no reason that he could discern. His self-diagnosis: the upside of the U-curve was beginning to kick in. The timeline of aging that had cast him into an emotional malaise was now bailing him out.

Rauch further illustrates the U-curve theory with the case histories of interviewees whose sagas of midlife discontent parallel his own. He profiles several of the scientists and researchers involved in developing the theory; perhaps not surprisingly, their personal histories also follow the U-curve. He discusses how ideas grounded in psychology and behavioral economics can help us understand “forecasting errors” in predicting what will make us happy (getting a raise, for example) and for how long (until, say, we find out ours was lower than a colleague’s, or we realize we hate the job and feel trapped rather than rewarded).

He also offers practical tips for helping people better understand and endure their misgivings at middle age, including mindfulness and CBT techniques to battle self-doubt, manage disappointment, and reframe perspective. Sounds useful to mental health professionals and general readers alike, right?

So what gnawed at me as I read, especially since I’m enjoying the sunny side of the U-curve? Basically, it’s what Rauch does not include: mainly, any mention of the extensive psychological literature having to do with adult development through the life cycle. I found this particularly perplexing since the U-curve’s decade-by-decade paradigm has so much in common with a variety of classic psychological life-stage theories. And yet there’s no reference to Erik Erikson, the psychoanalyst whose well-known life-stage theory of development, from childhood through adulthood and onto old age, remains influential.

No nod either to the psychologist Daniel Levinson, who built on Erikson’s ideas to develop his own model of adult development, delineating the specific phases, stages, and transitions through which adults pass through the decades. Absent as well is Gail Sheehy, the author who popularized these ideas in her international bestseller Passages: Predictable Crises of Adult Life, which, although published more than 40 years ago, remains in print.

The only hint Rauch gives at all that a broader literature on adult development existed before the U-curve is his mention of Elliot Jacques, the Canadian psychoanalyst who coined the phrase midlife crisis in 1965. Jacques described that period as a time in which the shadow of mortality begins to loom, and with it, the sobering recognition that we won’t be able to fulfill all our hopes and dreams. Jacques also suggested that these years could present an opportunity to rethink and reevaluate what matters most to you in life.

For Rauch—as for Sheehy—the resolution of midlife disappointment offered a possible path for the discovery of renewed purpose, meaning, and, yes, happiness. As he sees it, this turning point provides the prosocial purpose toward which the U-curve has been leading us all along. “The curve seems imprinted on us as a way to repurpose us for a changing role in society as we age, a role that is less about competition, and more about connection and compassion,” he writes.

Rauch argues that the U-curve’s upswing in our 50s and beyond correlates with the growth of wisdom and the capacity for fostering and mentoring others, beyond one’s own selfish needs. Hmm, I thought. Isn’t this the adult stage of development that Erikson famously called generativity? Call me old-fashioned, but I couldn’t escape feeling that Rauch was reinventing life-stage theory under a new guise.

Well, maybe every generation needs to rediscover and reinterpret a version of this theory for itself. And maybe Rauch’s exclusion of Erikson and the others is simply a reflection of our contemporary fascination with big data and behavioral economics. And to be sure, the data are impressive. Still, I wondered about some of the caveats that came with it. For instance, as reproduced in the book, the raw, unadjusted world-sample graph derived from one of the largest studies looks, to my eye, nothing like a U-curve. Only after it’s adjusted for factors such as income, gender, education, employment, marriage, and health does that smooth U-curve (in another graph, also reproduced) actually appear. So in what ways, specifically, was it adjusted? In addition, studies reveal happiness levels reaching highs and lows at different ages, depending on the respondents’ country. And in one country—Russia—there doesn’t seem to be a curve at all, just consistent unhappiness.

Rauch warns readers that these results show general trends and do not necessarily apply to every individual. That’s true of every theory. But the anecdotes he offers mostly focus on high-achieving, well-educated, upper-middle class men, and a smaller number of women. That makes the demographic basis for his argument seem narrow. He hardly mentions the economic downturn from which so many people are still recovering. Have their lives followed the U-curve, or a different path?

The image Rauch’s book left me with was not that of a smiley face. Before I closed it, I lingered over the end pages, which carry reproductions of the series of paintings titled The Journey of Life by Thomas Cole, an 18th-century American artist. These four panoramic land­scapes—Childhood, Youth, Manhood, Old Age—dramatize Cole’s view of the four stages of life. Rauch uses them as eloquent reference points throughout to illustrate the moods that dominate each age, and the twists and turns taken by the river that courses through them all. The Happiness Curve has much to recommend it, but the details of those paintings tell the richer story that big data can only hint at.

Diane Cole

Diane Cole is the author of the memoir After Great Pain: A New Life Emerges and writes for The Wall Street Journal and many other publications.