I thought that we middle-aged men ruled the world. So I was surprised to learn that we are officially the most miserable people in Britain. Over the last three years, the Office for National Statistics asked 300,000 people how happy they were. They found that respondents in the 40–59 age bracket had the lowest levels of satisfaction. What’s more, they had the highest levels of anxiety.
In this post I’ll explore what we can do about it.
Being happy declines with age
Upon reflection, I guess it’s no great mystery why. Middle age is a battlefield. We mid-lifers have all the responsibility of caring for children and elderly parents. It’s the time when our optimism about life turns to disappointment. We face job insecurity, financial worry, marriage breakdown.
Plus we are plagued by the onset of health and image problems. The most visible of which manifests itself in weight gain and obesity.
Age and regret
Middle-age people also have regret. We regret choices we make, because we worry that we should have made other choices.
Sometimes think we should have done something better, but didn’t. Maybe we should have chosen a better mate, but didn’t. Or perhaps we should have taken that more exciting but risky job, but didn’t. We should have been more disciplined, but weren’t.
Often we regret these choices, which are in the past and can’t be changed. Plus we compare them to an ideal path that we think we should have taken. We have an idea in our heads of what could have been, if only a different choice had been made.
The problem is that we cannot change those choices. So we keep comparing the unchangeable choice we actually made, to this ideal. This fantasy. It can’t be changed, and it will never be as good as the ideal. The unchangeable choice we made will always be worse. It spins around and around in our heads.
Why kindness wins over insults
What can be done? Let’s take obesity as an example. The standard response, indulged in by the svelte majority, is to nag us into thinness. But fat shaming is seldom more than a disguise for the last acceptable prejudice. This is being vile about fat people. And it’s totally counterproductive.
Bullied people resort to comfort eating. And why go to the gym if you think you are going to be mocked? In response to such mockery, I for one applaud a new fat positivity movement. This has taken the opposite approach. But the reality is that obesity poses serious health problems.
No, there’s a middle path between fat shaming and fat acceptance and that’s understanding. The middle-age body is weak; we need support, not criticism. Change will only come if people are more kind and overcoming regrets.
Climbing out of the valley
So, if we middle-agers can seek this kindness to get us to 60 then there is some good news. This is that we eventually come out of a U-shaped trough. In fact, the years 65–79 are the happiest of all. At this age we:
- are secure financially,
- resolved personally,
- have little career anxieties, and
- with less of a parental burden.
We are free to (once again) enjoy the finer things in life. We also have time to let go of the ideals, and embrace reality:
The choice we made in the past is done, and we can’t change it. And in fact there’s some good in the choice, if we choose to see it. Being able to make the choice at all is an amazing thing. As is being alive, and learning from our experiences. And we can be satisfied with our choices.
We see them as “good enough” instead of always hoping for the perfect choices. Some choices will be great, some won’t be perfect, and we can embrace the entire range of choices we make. Of course, we are not actually always good. And our identity can encompass a whole range.
Sometimes we’re good, sometimes not, and sometimes somewhere between. We make mistakes, we do good things, we care, we are selfish, we are honest, we sometimes aren’t honest. So, we are all of it, and so making a bad choice isn’t in conflict with that more flexible (and realistic) self-identity. It’s a part of it.
Easier said than done
That’s all easier said than done, but when we find ourselves obsessing over past choices, we can
1) recognize that we’re falling into this pattern
2) realize that there’s some ideal we’re comparing our choices and ourselves to, and
3) let go of these perfect ideals and embrace a wider range of reality.
Regrets are a part of life, whether we want them or not, whether we’re aware we’re having them or not. But by looking into the cause of regrets, we can embrace the wide range of reality. We can learn to be satisfied with our choices, happier with the past and happier in the present moment.
Yes, there are many reasons to be cheerful in middle age. The gradual narrowing of horizons is soothing. When you’re young, time seems limitless. Later on, you accept that you will never learn Chinese. Or understand the ideas presented in A Brief History of Time. Or learn to play guitar and become the next Jimmy Page.
Let’s not kid ourselves that it’s not a huge relief. And that is a choice you won’t regret.
How do you allow yourself to feel happy as you age? What are your tips?
Leave a response, and let me know.