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Don’t Worry, Be Happy
Research shows the key to happiness is to stay present and embrace whatever gifts each decade brings. Yogis and scholars explain how to do just that.
(PHOTO: FFFORN STUDIO STORE/CREATIVE MARKET)
(PHOTO: FFFORN STUDIO STORE/CREATIVE MARKET)
“THERE HAS TO BE A WAY TO BE HAPPY—NO MATTER WHAT THE TRENDS SUGGEST—AT ANY AGE.”

I turned 40 last May, and I’m apparently about to tumble into years of despair. Because, according to friends and colleagues who hit that milestone a few years before I did (not to mention researchers), my “midlife crisis” is right around the corner. But I don’t buy it. Sure, I need at least an hour of meditation with one sock on, one sock off (no joke) and 1.5 (no more, no less) cups of Sleepytime tea to fall asleep, but that’s hardly what I’d call a crisis.

Jonathan Rauch, award-winning journalist and author of The Happiness Curve: Why Life Gets Better After 50 also rejects the idea of a midlife crisis, a term coined back in 1965 by psychologist Elliott Jaques. He prefers to call it a slump or, on perhaps less optimistic days, a “constant drizzle of disappointment.” Still pretty bleak sounding if you ask me.

Multiple studies of adults in countries around the world show a U shape on the happiness scale as we age. In fact, according to Rauch, “it turns up so frequently and in so many places that many happiness researchers take it for granted.” The U shape suggests that people feel good in their 20s, then get a bit more miserable in their 30s—until everything bottoms out in the fifth decade. In fact, according to a new study by Dartmouth professor David Blanchflower that examined trends in 132 countries, life’s “peak time for misery” happens around age 47. Ouch. Maybe that’s why my friends would rather say they’re celebrating the 20th anniversary of their 20th birthday than proudly own the Big 4-0.

There is good news, however. Studies by Blanchflower and British researcher Andrew Oswald bear that out. Their findings suggest that well-being “declines steadily (apart from a blip around the mid-20s) until approximately 50; it then rises in a hill-like way up to the age of 70; after that it declines slightly until the age of 90.” Happiness deepens as we age, like a fine wine. But until then—what? Those of us in our 40s are destined to mope around and bide our time until we can get a senior discount? No thank you. Fortunately, University of Pennsylvania researcher Matt Killingsworth has a different point of view. He found that happiness is tied to being present—not fretting about the past or even lusting after retirement.

I decided to set off to find a way to make it through this quote unquote low point without entering crisis mode. There has to be a way to be happy—no matter what the trends suggest—at any age.

What Is Happiness, Anyway?

Clearly, how a person defines happiness affects their perception of it—and there are myriad definitions to consider, from ancient traditions to modern scholarly ones. In the yoga world, for example, there are at least four types of happiness. Santosha (contentment) implies a sense of delight; being content with what you have, who you are, and where you are in this moment. We’re happiest when we’re not wishing we were better, richer, kinder, or any other kind of different. Sukha (ease or, literally, a good space) is the comfort or sweetness we feel, even in the midst of confusion or turbulent times. For some people, mudita (sympathetic joy) is the hardest of all. It asks us to be joyful for those who are happiest; to be happy for the good fortune of others—even if they have what we wish we had. We experience ananda, the state of being blissfully happy, when we stop trying to find happiness and simply experience it. Yogic scholar Georg Feuerstein once wrote that ananda is “what we experience when our whole body radiates with joyous energy and we feel like embracing everyone and everything.” The Dalai Lama himself says that happiness is mainly having “a sense of deep satisfaction.” All of these definitions are, in the words of Killingsworth, “tied to being present.”

Rauch went with a more scholarly definition in his book. He breaks happiness down into two categories: affective well-being (how you feel today, how often you smile) and evaluative well-being (how you assess your life as a whole). His research looked at the latter: “You might not feel happy today, but you still feel your life is fulfilling and rewarding,” Rauch says.

Although Rauch is a fan of the U curve, which he contends “has been pretty stable over time,” he also believes there will always be outliers. And even within the same shape, he says, the details of the curve, such as where it bends and at what age, vary by country, suggesting there could be some social impact to our well-being.

(PHOTO: FFFORN STUDIO STORE/CREATIVE MARKET)

How to Be Happy at Every Age

Even if research shows happiness commonly dips in middle age, that doesn’t mean we can’t be happy at any age.

Linda Sparrowe, co-author of The Woman’s Book of Yoga and Health: A Lifelong Guide to Wellness (with Patricia Walden), believes that each stage of life has its high points on the happiness scale and, alas, its low points, too. Yoga and certain mindful lifestyle practices can maximize the pinnacles and minimize the troughs, she says. While the stages she writes about are fluid—adolescence moving into our 20s; early 40s holding fast to the 30s, the late 40s having more in common with the early 50s, and so forth—Sparrowe agrees that each decade brings something unique to our growth.

Ayurvedic practitioner and yoga teacher trainer Niika Quistgard encourages people to look at doshic patterns as a general map, not an unbreakable fact. “There are generalizations that can help us take a closer look and see if they’re true for us at the time, but we can’t just boilerplate everyone,” Quistgard says. “Life is more complex than that.”

With that in mind, let’s examine the ups and downs—the gifts and challenges—each decade may bring.

THE 20s

Anyone who has navigated the rough waters of puberty knows how amazing it can feel to move past insecurities, erratic hormones, and conflicting messages from family, friends, and the media that threaten a person’s sense of self. No wonder the 20s are thought to be at the top of the happiness curve. Sure, there are still moments of doubt, as young people struggle to feel less awkward and more grounded—to become more independent, to find their voices, and to embrace both their vulnerabilities and their strengths. There are still times of falling down and getting back up and falling down again. That’s all part of what makes this the decade of “becoming.”

My 20s were a wild roller coaster, tearing through the social constructs that had limited my youth. I hit rock bottom, at one point living in my car after I left a dysfunctional relationship. But that was when I finally began to discover my true self and separate from my family, controlling partners, and trauma from my past. I had nothing, yet I had independence, and that was everything.

My 20s were challenging, but there really is no better time to try things on for size—to play with new ways of showing up in the world—and to explore new places, ideas, and relationships. Yogic philosophy calls this stage brahmacharya, or the student phase, which centers around learning, playing, and finding mentors.

Yoga plays an important role in this time of awakening. A physical yoga practice—standing poses, arm balances, backbends and forward bends—can be stabilizing and strengthening, both for the body and for the emotions, and help to build self-confidence off the mat, too.

THE 30s

After a decade (or more) of self-inquiry and investigation, the 30s arrive, bringing a shift in focus from the inner to the outer world. Suddenly you are coming into your own, and you are ready to show the world your fabulousness. You are more outward-facing, establishing yourself in the workplace, creating new ideas, setting down roots, taking care of others, and perhaps starting a family. I got married and gave birth to my daughter when I was 30, and it completely transformed my life. At the same time, I was building my career as a travel writer—it was hectic, but I loved it. Yogic philosophy calls this period grihastha, or the householder period, a time of adventure, family, and enterprise during adulthood.

The challenge, of course, is you run the risk of losing yourself in the process, not making time to take care of your own physical and emotional needs. Sparrowe warns that when we move into this decade, we straddle “a fine line between being present in the world and being swallowed up by that world.” These are heated, ambitious, passionate years, influenced by the fiery pitta dosha, says Ayurvedic practitioner Quistgard. So, it’s important to stay balanced as much as possible. Otherwise, your creative, no-time-to-lose energy becomes more frantic, until you run the risk of chronic stress and burnout.

Committing to a regular yoga practice can bring your focus inward, which will help to calm and reset a young-adult nervous system. It worked for me. I didn’t really embrace a regular yoga and meditation practice until my 30s, and then it was out of necessity. I needed it as a way to create an intentional separation between my deadline-driven work life and my home life; I needed to learn how to truly finish something before I started something else—not just in a physical sense, but in my mind as well. A consistent home practice—even for 10 minutes a day—can give you a respite from all the responsibilities you shoulder (at work or at home), help you refuel, and put things back into perspective. Put your legs up the wall when you get home; listen to soothing music; do several rounds of pranayama (Nadi Shodhana is particularly balancing); go for a walk. And then, move into your non-work time with your full attention and joy.

THE 40s

When author Rauch hit his 40s, he was dissatisfied despite his achievements and wanted to know why. So he did what any self-respecting journalist would do: He interviewed experts in psychology, neuroscience, economics, and sociology to help make sense of what was going on. He also conducted what he called an “unscientific survey” of approximately 300 ordinary people about their lives, he told me.

“YOU NEED TO BE ABLE TO SURRENDER AND TO KNOW THAT YOU’RE SUPPORTED IN ORDER TO BE ABLE TO REALLY BE CONTENT.”

The results, which he describes in his book, led him to understand that our 40s are a decade of transition and a certain amount of upheaval. Our priorities—in other words, the things that relate to our sense of evaluative well-being—tend to change over time. We typically value competition, ambition, and achievement in our 20s, 30s, and early 40s, but as we move deeper into our fifth decade, we may start to question whether we’ve achieved our goals, whether we’ve done enough, and—even more fraught—whether we still matter. At the same time, Rauch says, “We’re beginning to shift our values toward caring, cooperation, and community,” which can feel confusing. Not to worry, he says. “If you hit a slump in your 40s, know it’s temporary and you have a lot to look forward to. Anyone who says, ‘If you haven’t made it by your 50s, you’re finished’ has it exactly backward.”

Meditation and yoga nidra teacher Tracee Stanley encourages people to embrace the transitions in their lives, welcoming them as portals to redefine and rediscover at a deeper level what happiness truly means. “A lot of times in life when there’s a transition, there’s also a vacuum. A void. The most powerful place to put your intention is in a void,” Stanley says. “In a transition, if we can stay awake and aware, that’s where power is.” Stanley recommends yoga nidra (yogic sleep) during this time, which she calls a deeply “immersive experience of self-inquiry and deep rest” that can increase your intuition and bring more clarity to your purpose—all of which will serve you well as you move into your later years.

THE 50s

Even though Rauch says we have a lot to look forward to in our 50s, sometimes that’s not immediately apparent. Entering a new era, some people complain that they feel invisible, irrelevant, or kind of “in the way” in a culture obsessed with youth. Some grumble that their bodies have changed and they hardly recognize themselves. Some women struggle with perimenopause and the realization that their childbearing years are officially over. Sounds rough to me. But Sparrowe doesn’t see it that way. She says the sixth decade brings opportunities for powerful, transformative experiences. If we enter into our 50s having taken care of ourselves, she says, we’re much more apt to weather the physical challenges and move into a stage of life in which we nurture others in a much larger context and find the confidence to speak our truths kindly and without apology.

This decade lines up with yogic philosophy’s third stage, vanaprastha, which focuses on contemplation, having less concern about material things, and solitude; it is also called the forest-dweller or retirement period (often marked by grandchildren).

On a physical and emotional level, yoga can help combat those pesky perimenopause symptoms—insomnia, hot flashes, fatigue, and anxiety. Specifically, forward bends, twists, and backbends can help pacify and then activate the adrenals. Baxter Bell, MD, author of Yoga for Healthy Aging: A Guide to Lifelong Well-Being, says that studies of longtime yoga practitioners and meditators also show calmer brainwave patterns, improvement in areas of the brain involved with cognitive decision-making and memory, and an improved ability to tune into the subtle messages of the body and respond to them more proactively than reactively. All of this is to say: Keep up your practice.

THE 60s AND BEYOND

For many people, their 60s, 70s, and 80s read like a litany of physical complaints: osteoporosis, heart disease, hip and knee pain. Sometimes the list seems endless. Of course, this time of life is so much more than that. In yogic philosophy, it is known as sannyasa: the time in which our attention moves deeper inward, toward union with the divine. Many retire, begin to let go of their possessions, and choose to spend more time in contemplation and in service to others. This sense of freedom can bring with it an almost childlike energy, an added layer of wisdom born from a lifetime of experiences.

Alan Castel, a professor in the Department of Psychology at UCLA, whose own research focuses on human memory, cognition, and cognitive aging, suggests that there could be a biological reason why the elder years sit at the top of the U curve. As we age, our brains actually latch onto and recall positive things more than negative ones, says Castel, author of Better with Age: The Psychology of Successful Aging. This is called the “positivity bias.” Castel references a study by Laura Carstensen that demonstrates if you show people two faces, one happy and one sad, younger people focus more on the sad face, whereas older people spend more time looking at the happy face.

(PHOTO: FFFORN STUDIO STORE/CREATIVE MARKET)

“This can influence memory—and mood. If you focus on positive things, those are the things you’re more likely to remember,” Castel says. Plus, even though your memory declines with age, your memory selectivity improves; you get better at focusing on the things that are important to you, Castel says.

To find balance at this stage—or really any stage—and to feel more connected to yourself and others, Quistgard recommends spending more time in nature, living with the natural circadian rhythm (waking with the sunrise, winding down with the sunset), and serving others. Do yoga, sit in meditation, and laugh as often as possible. Reach out to others, practice together, connect, mentor, and support one another.

Happiness at Every Age

Of course, just because you practice yoga, chant mantras, or breathe rhythmically doesn’t guarantee your happiness, says yoga teacher Christi Sullivan. “If you go into [your practice] with the expectation that happiness and joy will be sprinkled on you like fairy dust, you’ll never find it,” she says.

“It’s not finding the feeling. It’s feeling the feeling that is already there,” she says. “If you wonder why life has lost its magic, it’s because we stopped showing up inside and were looking for it on the outside.”

So how do we get the magic back? By approaching our life with devotion and gratitude, without trying to “get something out of it,” says yoga nidra teacher Stanley. If you assign an expectation to an action (like “On a scale of 1 to 10, how happy do I want to be when I’m done?”), it changes the experience. “If you’re looking for it, it’s not going to happen,” she says, because your mind is too busy thinking. “You need to be able to surrender and to know that you’re supported in order to be able to really be content.”

This ties back into Killingsworth’s research about presence. While he was a doctoral student at Harvard, Killingsworth developed an app to track happiness and found that a wandering mind is an unhappy mind, even if you’re fantasizing about the good ol’ days or better days to come. He discovered that people are happiest when they stay in the moment.

Right here. Right now.

Even if you’re in an unpleasant situation, like a traffic jam, or say, I don’t know, freshly 40 with a U curve stacked against you.

AIMEE HECKEL is a writer in Boulder, Colorado. Learn more at aimeeheckel.com