RealClearBooks: In “The Happiness Curve,” you write that crises such as unemployment, divorce, disease take their toll on human beings — which is intuitive — and cite research that puts a price take on it ($60,000 a year for losing your job; $100,00 for a painful divorce). Absent those kind of traumas, what’s the single biggest determinant of happiness in adults?
Jonathan Rauch: Positive, trusting social connection. Hands down. Being in supportive, trusting, and loving relationships is more important than wealth, health, and status. In fact, investing in wealth and status just makes us hungrier for more of the same (what researchers call the hedonic treadmill). Investing in core relationships and giving back to others provides lasting satisfaction that grows over time.
RCB: Jon, in your book you write about a Canadian named Derek who sent you a note after reading a magazine piece of yours about the U Curve. He seemed grateful to know about it — happier, actually. So my question is whether the mere knowledge that most human beings experience this big U-shaped curve when it comes to life satisfaction … will that help people get through their 30s and 40s?
Rauch: Yes! Forewarned is forearmed. Knowing what’s going on won’t abolish the U-shaped happiness curve. Age-related midlife slump is a natural, normal, and healthy transition in our values, with a wonderful payoff in later-life contentment. But it’s much easier to get through if not compounded by fear and alarm that we’re suffering from some kind of permanent depression, or that something is wrong with us, or that we have some kind of shameful secret ... or that it’s a “crisis.” My book is all the stuff I wish I could have known when I was 38. I would have been more relaxed and optimistic in my 40s!
RCB: So the “happiness trough” exists even in chimpanzees and orangutans? That’s what you write in Chapter 3. Apes don’t even have tuition bills or four-car garages, so if they’re susceptible to the “midlife crisis,” I guess there’s no escaping it for humans?
Rauch: Something analogous happens in chimps and orangutans. They’re not human, obviously, so the phenomenon isn’t identical. But the cross-species parallel suggests that there’s something pretty fundamental about the U-shaped curve, probably based in evolution and related to our changing social roles as we age.
RCB: I loved your book, but don’t remember being unhappy or unfulfilled in my 40s. Am I an anomaly?
Rauch: No. Lots of things influence life satisfaction; the aging process is only one of them. It’s significant, but it can be swamped by other factors, like satisfaction with work and relationships. Ironically, those who experience smooth sailing in life — people who objectively have the most to be grateful for — are most at risk for feeling age-related malaise, because other factors are stable. Here’s how I think about it: It’s perfectly possible to be satisfied and grateful in your 40s ... but it’s harder. So don’t be surprised if you have trouble. Not everyone will, but lots of people do.
RCB: Your subtitle is “Why Life Gets Better After 50.” And in one podcast I listened to, I heard you say that our 60s and 70s are the prime emotional peaks of life. Those are some of the most optimistic things I ever heard. You write about wisdom, presumably a trait we acquire as we age. Why does being wiser make us happier?
Rauch: Wisdom is related to maintaining emotional equilibrium, being able to balance multiple points of view, having a larger perspective on life, having some experience about how to handle ourselves and others, caring about others, and not being a drama queen. All of those things are good for happiness. Best of all: They are also good for the happiness of those around us! If there’s one virtue I wish our society valued more, it’s wisdom.
RCB: Do our poisonous current politics or the “Trump Effect” negate any of your findings? It certainly seems like many of my friends are uncommonly sour these days.
Rauch: I hear you, brother. If chimps could read the news these days, it might upset them, too. Seriously, there’s a lot to worry about in our country right now. Remember, the aging process isn’t the only thing that influences our satisfaction. Life and politics also matter. Let’s put it this way: There have been better times to be a middle-aged Democrat than right now!
RCB: You sound personally happier now than when you started researching this book. Is that because you’ve sailed past your 50th birthday? Or because you finished the book?
Rauch: Yes, yes.