The cover story in the December, 2014 Atlantic is an article by Jonathan Rauch entitled “The Real Roots of the Midlife Crisis.” His description of midlife, though, is not so much of a crisis but of a low point in the road, a dip that for some is barely perceptible but that for many sinks to dejection. I’d term it a midlife slough rather than a crisis.

Evidence has accumulated for some time that life satisfaction tends to decrease in midlife. Across many cultures and different research samples, happiness tends to decline during the early decades of adulthood, reaching a low point in the mid-forties. It then increases into late adulthood, until the seventies or so, when illness and disability are likely to put a damper on one’s sense of contentment. This pattern of age-related changes in life satisfaction is known as the “happiness U-curve.” Researchers measure happiness in various ways; the measurement that reveals this pattern is not a moment-by-moment report of one’s mood but responses to a question like the following:  “All things considered, how satisfied are you with your life as a whole these days?”

The Happiness U-Curve. Image from theatlantic.com

The Happiness U-Curve. Image from theatlantic.com

The U-curve turns up most often when variables such as marital status, income, and employment status are controlled for; consult the article for a discussion of the controversy over using such statistical methods. What interests me is the question of why happiness is likely to dip in the forties, then bounce back. Rauch mentions a factor that Daniel Levinson, one of the first researchers to describe the midlife crisis, considered crucial; increasing awareness of one’s mortality. Having reached the midpoint of our likely lifespan, we are more aware that we won’t live forever. This prompts a review of what we’ve done with our lives up to this point, a review that for most of us is disconcerting. Rauch describes his own life review:

“In my 40s, I found I was obsessively comparing my life with other people’s: scoring and judging myself, and counting up the ways in which I had fallen behind in a race. Where was my best seller? My literary masterpiece? Barack Obama was younger than I, and look where he was!”

When we compare our accomplishments to those of others, or with our earlier expectations, we easily see all the ways we fall short. There’s a beautiful passage in George Eliot’s Middlemarch that poignantly describes what has happened to us:

“For in the multitude of middle-aged men who go about their vocations in a daily course determined for them much in the same way as the tie of their cravats, there is always a good number who once meant to shape their own deeds and alter that world a little. The story of their coming to be shapen after the average and fit to be packed by the gross, is hardly ever told even in their own consciousness.”

Indeed, the disillusionment of middle age is of this sort; we hoped to be in control, to alter the world, but come to realize that we are more shaped than shapers.

This is the first diminishment: recognizing that neither we nor our accomplishments are exceptional. When we then think of those accomplishments in light of our eventual deaths and the centuries afterwards, during which all we did will be forgotten, our little stack of successes seems even punier. Eventually, all we can do is acknowledge that we will never be what we dreamed of being. Rauch notes that in his fifties, “the expectation of scaling ever greater heights has faded, and with it my sense of disappointment and failure.” Acceptance salves the pain of midlife disillusionment.

How do we attain acceptance, though? I hope to write more about this in a future blog post at Beyond Halfway.

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A few years ago, described a report of the work of psychologist Cliff Arnall, who found that the third Monday in January is the unhappiest day of the year. According to that study, we have two weeks yet to spiral down to the nadir of happiness. Today I learned that there is apparently some disagreement about the most dolorous day. News organizations are describing today as the most depressing day of the year. Again, British researchers were involved (it seems the British are more interested than the rest of us in unhappiness). These researchers looked at the content of tweets each day over the past three years and identified January 6 as the low point. A common theme in the tweets for this day was guilt over broken New Year’s resolutions. Also, a British organization that helps people file for divorce (Britain again!) has designated the first Monday in January as Divorce Monday, the day that divorce filings are highest.

So, which day is really the lowest day of the year? I’m not too happy about the weather today (snow, with wind chills to 30 below), but otherwise I’m feeling pretty good. I neither made any resolutions nor will file for divorce, so I guess that makes me a misery laggard.

There are a couple ironies about this story. First, the British researchers in the recent study were commissioned by a firm that makes a high-protein dairy drink named Upbeat. Why are Upbeat folks interested in unhappiness? Also, today happens to be the feast of Epiphany, celebrating the wise men bringing gifts to the baby Jesus and ushering in the season of Epiphany, which will last until Lent. The term “epiphany” has to do with a manifestation or appearance of the divine, as in the manifestation of Christ’s divinity to the Magi. Thus, for me and millions of others for whom today is associated with God having become human, today is definitely day of joy.

epiphany

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I wrote earlier about Baz Luhrmann’s adaption of The Great Gatsby , suggesting that, despite its many fine features, the movie doesn’t do a particularly good job of conveying a couple of themes that are central to Fitzgerald’s novel.   I didn’t explain my point concerning one of those themes, so I’ll do so in this post.

St. Augustine said that we are what we love.  Human unhappiness results from disordered love—from having the greatest love for something that is insufficient to satisfy us.  Gatsby’s love for Daisy was disordered in two ways.  First of all, he was putting his ultimate confidence in something temporal—in a human being who would one day die.  Over the five years from when Gatsby had last seen Daisy, he had created an image of Daisy that envisioned something that could provide him with perfect happiness.  He had, in essence, idolized her, in the sense of making her worthy of worship.  His illusion was bound to be shattered.  Here is how Fitzgerald describes the aftermath of Gatsby and Daisy reuniting:

“As I went over to say good-by I saw that the expression of bewilderment had come back into Gatsby’s face, as though a faint doubt had occurred to him as to the quality of his present happiness.  Almost five years!  There must have been moments even that afternoon when Daisy tumbled short of his dreams—not through her own fault, but because of the colossal vitality of his illusion.  It had gone beyond her, beyond everything.  He had thrown himself into it with a creative passion, adding to it all the time, decking it out with every bright feather that drifted his way.  No amount of fire or freshness can challenge what a man will store up in his ghostly heart.”

There is no way that Daisy or anyone could have lived up to the idealized image that Gatsby had created of her.  Daisy was also bound to disappoint in another way.  Not only did she display the ordinary limitations of human flesh, but she was a particularly fickle and untrustworthy manifestation of such flesh.  Her life of privilege made her ill-suited to reciprocate to Gatsby’s love with anything like the dedication and commitment that he showed.  She pulled back from him rather than support him when Tom questions his integrity, and when he died he was waiting anxiously for a phone call from her that never came.  Fitzgerald’s final statement about Daisy lumps her with Tom:

“They were careless people, Tom and Daisy—they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.”

Luhrmann seems to have wanted this tragedy to be seen as a romance, and so he makes Daisy into a weakling overwhelmed by Tom’s bullying rather than the deeply flawed, unreliable person that she is in the novel.  He even gives the suggestion that she was in the process of calling Gatsby at the moment that Gatsby was killed.  Here’s how Christopher Orr of The Atlantic describes how the movie changes Daisy:

“It is with her character that Luhrmann most clearly displays his incomprehension of the work he’s adapting—or perhaps, more cynically, his assumption that audiences would be unable to comprehend it. This Daisy is indecisive rather than “careless,” a co-victim in the story’s central tragedy rather than its principal architect, a smash-ee rather than smasher. Among other consequences, this transformation renders Fitzgerald’s closing judgment on the Buchanans (which Luhrmann reproduces faithfully) all but meaningless.”

Luhrmann seems to suggest that things might have worked out for Gatsby were it not for a few unfortunate circumstances.  That’s not the tale that Fitzgerald tells; his Gatsby is doomed because he has all his incredible capacity for hope on a single person, and one singularly ill-equipped to bear it.  What we put our hope in is as important as whether we have hope.  Luhrmann does us no favors by obscuring this point.

Gatsby

In her textbook Development Through the Lifespan, 4th ed. (2007),  psychologist Laura Berk describes several factors associated with well-being in middle adulthood.  She cites good health, sense of control over life events, commitment to meaningful goals, positive social relationships, a good marriage, and successful mastery of multiple roles.  Middle-aged adults who have most or all of these characteristics are likely to report that they are satisfied with life—in other words, they are likely to be happy.

What about those who have reached middle adulthood with few or none of these characteristics, though?  I thought of Berk’s list when I recently read a Newsweek article about Tang Yongming, the Chinese man who during the Olympics killed American Todd Bachman at Beijing’s Drum Tower, and then leapt to his death.  The article, written by Melinda Lui and published in the November 24, 2008 Newsweek,  can be found online here.  Tang was 47 years old, and so grew up during the Cultural Revolution of the late 60s and early 70s, reaching adulthood soon after the start of the economic reforms initiated by Deng Xiaoping.  During Tang’s life, China was transformed from a centrally controlled economy to today’s competitive capitalism.  He didn’t adapt well to the changes, and they seem to have eventually been his undoing.

In the early ’80s, Tang was a skilled machine-tool operator at the Hangzhou Meter Factory, a government-owned business that produced  machine gauges.  The factory not only provided an income, but also housing, medical care, and a pension.  Tang

Drum Tower, Beijing

Drum Tower, Beijing

 married a co-worker, and the couple had a son in 1987 (but there were no more children because of China’s one-child policy).  Life was good.  In 1999, the government sold the company to entepreneurs, and the new owners promised to maintain wages and benefits.  However, after a few years, the owners started eliminating unprofitable segments of the business and reneged on their promises to workers.  Tang’s wife was laid off.  He was reassigned to be a guard at the factory gate.  He accepted early retirement in 2003, getting in exchange a cash buyout and ownership of his apartment. 

Tang’s life deteriorated rapidly from then on.  He and his wife began arguing, and divorced in 2005.  He married again in 2006, but the marriage failed after less than two months.  Tang started his money on Wenjun, his now-adult son, selling his apartment to meet his son’s constantly escalating requests.  His savings were soon gone, and he was living in a single room, without enough money to feed himself.  Others tried to help him get work, but he resisted.  A neighbor suggests that his had to do with loss of status:  “Tang didn’t want to lose face by doing menial work.”   He left the area for a time, possibly because it would be less humiliating to work as a laborer in a place where no one knew him.  Unfortunately, he happened to go to Sichuan, which was devastated by an earthquake on May 12.  He returned to his hometown of Hangzhuo breifly, then left again on August 1, saying he was going to look for work.  He stabbed Todd Bachman and committed suicide eight days later.

Tang lacked all of the factors that Berk associates with personal satisfaction in midlife (with the possible exception of good health).  He had no control over key events, he doesn’t seem to have had any meaningful goals (at least not ones that could be realized), he had few social relationships, he wasn’t married, and toward the end he seems to have not been successful in any social role.       

In describing the vast social changes that occurred in Tang’s lifetime,  Lui states, “three decades of reforms have shredded China’s safety net and transformed society beyond recognition.”  Life involves adaptation, and, the more society changes, the more the adaptation required.   Lui suggests that Tang’s misery was unexceptional.  She cites a community worker who called him “ordinary,” and notes:  The troubles that destroyed Tang—the loss of his job, the collapse of his marriage, heartbreak over his wastrel only child—are all too common across China.”  Maybe rapidly evolving societies will always have substantial numbers of people who can’t adjust to change and become psychological casualties.  Perhaps this would be the case even if the changes that take place benefit most members of society.   This idea was popularized by Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock, published in 1970.  Toffler predicted that many people would be unable to keep pace with ever-accelerating technological innovation, and proposed that society establish mechanisms to rein in uncontrolled change.  An article critically analyzing Toffler’s thesis can be found here.   

If change is related to decreases in happiness for at least some of the populace, the other extreme—stagnation—doesn’t exactly make people gleeful.   Perhaps the greatest happiness is associated with gradual changes that don’t tax people’s capacity to adapt.  Or maybe the issue isn’t so much the rate of change but the person’s willingness to accept it.  My parents feel left out when their offspring communicate by emails or text messages, but their exclusion is the result of having decided years ago to not learn the technology.  Lui’s interviews with those who knew Tang suggest that he saw the present order as unfair and resented those who were doing well under that order.  Maybe one of the greatest sources of unhappiness is the refusal to accept things as they are.