No matter what is going on in your life, around the age of 40-50 you may feel a dip in happiness. But not to worry, after the small slump your happiness picks back up again. Here’s how to cope:
According to research, depression becomes less common as we get older. This may be because older adults seem to have a greater optimism bias—the feeling that things will work out—and more positivity—a focus on the positive rather than the negative in life—than younger people.
How to survive midlife
It’s good to know that, as you get older, things get better. But that doesn’t mean we can’t do anything to help ourselves deal with middle-age malaise. Luckily, Rauch has some ideas for getting through this time with more perspective.
Just understanding that it’s a near-universal phenomenon can help us stop blaming ourselves for our feelings and learn to accept them more. It doesn’t mean you won’t still get disappointed, but at least you might stop berating yourself for how you feel, which otherwise only serves to make things worse.
Interrupt your internal critic.
We are basically wired to want more and to be optimistic about our future—at least when we’re young—because it’s to our evolutionary advantage. But, as disappointment sinks in, we may find ourselves comparing our achievements to others’ achievements and deciding we fall short. This is a recipe for additional suffering.
To counter that, Rauch suggests interrupting our internal critic using cognitive-behavioral therapy approaches to reframe a situation or stop incessant rumination. A short interjection of some internal mantra or reminder—like “I don’t have to be better than anyone else” or the shorter “Stop comparing”—may help you catch yourself and keep your mind from spinning out of control.
I know it’s ubiquitous these days, but mindfulness—or other present-minded disciplines, like tai chi, yoga, or even just physical exercise—can help you to turn off the self-judgment button, feel less anxious, and experience more positive emotions. In my own life, I’ve used mindfulness meditations, stretching, and taking a walk outside to help me become more present, and they never fail to point my mood in the right direction.
Share your pain with others.
Many people find it hard to reach out to others when they are feeling midlife discontent. They fear it implies that something is wrong with them, that they are deficient in some way, or that they’ll lose respect from others.
But sharing feelings with a good friend, who can listen with compassion and also support you through the experience, can help make you feel less alone. “In isolation, disappointment and discontent ferment and fester, which adds to shame, which feeds the urge for isolation. Breaking that cycle is job one,” writes Rauch.
A good friend may also help prevent you from doing something rash, like telling off your boss or cheating on your spouse—something that may seem like it’s going to rid you of your malaise, but will likely backfire.
Take small steps; don’t leap.
This may be hardest of all to do, but it’s so important. When you feel the midlife slump, don’t try to radically shake things up by throwing away your life’s work or your family and by starting over on some tropical island. Instead, consider making smaller changes that are aligned with your accumulated skills, experience, and connections.
Rauch points to the work of Jonathan Haidt, who has found that making progress toward our goals—rather than achieving our goals—and living a life of purpose are what lead to lasting happiness. So, instead of going for a full-tilt reorganization of your life, think about making incremental changes that will bring smaller boosts of positivity. Maybe you can consider a lateral move at work, re-energizing your marriage by trying new things together, or taking on a new hobby. That way, when your happiness curve goes up—as it likely will—you’ll not be left with a shattered life. Which brings us to his last suggestion…
This seems like strange advice; but because midlife malaise is a developmental issue, it may be best just to wait out the happiness dip and accept that it’s likely to change. As long as you don’t sink into depression, holding steady may just be the best strategy.
That doesn’t mean you should ignore severe problems in your life; it simply means that if your emotions seem out of proportion to what’s going on, take heed and be patient with yourself. Of course, this would probably be a lot easier if people didn’t dismiss your feelings as some kind of narcissistic crisis. Rauch calls on all of us to stop disparaging people going through midlife difficulties and to show more compassion.
Additionally, his book suggests that stereotyping aging as a time of decline is wrong-headed. He points toward organizations—like Encore.org—that are working to change negative messages around aging and help older people feel supported rather than thwarted in their attempts to remain vital, contributing members of society.
On a personal note, I found his book to be quite uplifting and instructive. It definitely helped me to be more forgiving of myself for feeling midlife malaise…and look forward more to getting through it. Perhaps it will help other middle-aged readers realize that, just because you’re feeling discontent, it doesn’t mean that life is passing you by. Instead, it’s probably just getting ready to blossom.
|Read on: How to Survive Your Midlife Blues|