CURVE YOUR ENTHUSIASM
Your levels of contentment are proven to nose-dive in mid-life. Here’s how to avoid becoming a grumpy dad
Endless singalongs to The Wiggles. Enforced bouts of celibacy. The pain of stepping on yet another bastard piece of Lego . . . Yes, fatherhood is wondrous and life-affirming, but it can also prove a daily challenge.
The bad news is that most dads will navigate the whirlwind of toddler tantrums and sleep deprivation at a stage of life when statistically they’re also under the most emotional duress.
Economists from Warwick University in the UK conducted a huge study that followed 50,000 adults in Australia, Britain and Germany throughout their lives. They found levels of contentment tend to hit an all-time low when
people hit their 40s. Researchers call this mid-life dip “the U-shaped life-satisfaction curve” - an idea that’s supported by a bundle of academic studies.
“It’s that nasty transition when you feel you haven’t achieved what you wanted to,” explains
Jonathan Rauch, author of The Happiness Curve: Why Life Gets
Better After Midlife. “You’re disappointed in the past and pessimistic about the future.”
Luckily, there's light at the end of the tunnel – the stats show happiness levels typically start to rise again in your 50s. But what can you do in the meantime if you’re venturing into this tricky age bracket?
THE COMPARISON TRAP
Money, fame, wild sex . . . there’ll always be someone who outguns you in each department. But if you waste time comparing yourself to their situation, you’re leaping on an express train straight to the doldrums.
During his midlife slump, Rauch found himself doing this compulsively. Aware this habit was bringing him down, he developed a basic system of cognitive behaviour treatment to break the loop. Whenever he found himself negatively comparing his situation to someone else, Rauch would repeat the mantra “No comparison”. The idea: to silence the inner critic before it delivered yet another sneering rebuke.
It’s sound advice if you’ve ever found yourself convulsing with envy at a mate’s high-rolling lifestyle on Instagram. To stay sane, strive to appreciate what you’ve got rather that what you haven’t. As economist Richard Layard says in Rauch's book: “One secret to happiness is to ignore comparisons with people who are more successful than you are: always compare downwards, not upwards.”
EMBRACE THE NORM
Rauch hit his rocky period in his 40s. “I felt like I might never feel satisfied with anything again.” Compounding his anguish was an awareness that, on paper, his life was actually pretty good – he was happily married and kicking major career goals (he’d just won the National Magazine Award, the magazine industry’s equivalent of the Pulitzer Prize). Yet knowing that his disquiet had no logical basis only aggravated Rauch’s malaise by making him feel ungrateful to boot.
While writing his book, Rauch spoke to psychologists who counsel people for mid-life dissatisfaction. Their advice: instead of beating yourself up over this self-perceived character flaw, normalise what you’re going through and remember this is a typical developmental stage that will eventually disperse.
“You need to break the spiral of self-recrimination that happens to people in this age-related funk,” Rauch says. Remind yourself that it’s a normal, natural, healthy transition. Yes, it’s a pain to go through. But it has a splendid pay-off in your 50s, 60s, 70s even 80s.”
STEP DON’T LEAP
Men are virtually hard-wired to try and fix problems. When you’re stuck in a rut, it’s natural to want to shake things up. But that doesn’t necessarily mean you should chuck in your nine-to-five day-job on a mad impulse. Or embark on some doomed affair
with the 22-year-old office receptionist.
“Step don’t leap,” advises Rauch. “Change is often important and necessary. But especially in this period of life it’s important to keep change logical. Be suspicious of disruptive change.”
That doesn’t mean your masterplan to sell your house and become a diving instructor in the Philippines doesn’t have any merit. Maybe just canvas the opinions of trusted friends and family first.
People at the bottom of the U-curve often isolate themselves by not talking to those close to them about how they feel. “They don’t want to panic their loved ones or be mocked for having a mid-life crisis so they keep it secret,” Rauch says.
Don’t go it alone: talk to your wife or phone a friend. If they’re of a similar vintage, chances are they’ll know what you’re talking about.
MIDLIFE ISSUES CAN DRIVE YOU APE SHIT.