Sam talks with Jonathan Rauch, Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution, Contributing Editor at The Atlantic, and author of The Happiness Curve.
Jonathan reflects on important milestones that contributed to writing The Happiness Curve, including:
- How winning the equivalent of the Pulitzer Prize in magazine journalism at 45 years old provided only momentary relief from his midlife malaise.
- Viewing the Voyage of Life at 19 years old and how Thomas Cole’s art shaped his perspective on life’s journey.
- The 30-year anniversary of walking the streets of Tokyo with an influential mentor and their simple but profound conversation about the “midlife crisis”
The discussion highlights key concepts for those at/near middle age, while inspiring a movement to rebuild society around the natural trajectory of adult development in midlife and beyond.
Sam Ushio (00:08):
Welcome to Ikigai Stories. I’m Sam Ushio. The goal of this podcast is to showcase people who are living with intention, working hard to align actions with priorities, and ultimately to provide a platform of inspiration for those seeking to live a life rooted in purpose. Jonathan Rauch is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a contributing editor at the Atlantic, and author of the book, The Happiness Curve. When Jonathan was 45 years old, he won the most prestigious award in magazine journalism, the equivalent of the Pulitzer Prize. Leading up to the award, he felt a nagging sense of dissatisfaction and couldn’t quite figure out why. But upon winning the award, that feeling went away for about 10 days. A conversation with Carol Graham revealed research coming out of the field of economics that identified a dip in life satisfaction for middle aged people in the US around the world, And even in primates, that insight provided a glimpse into Jonathan’s malaise.
Maybe this slump wasn’t just him, maybe it was a stage in life. Turns out he was right. Jonathan and I discussed his personal journey when at 19 years old, he viewed Voyage of Life, a series of four paintings by Thomas Cole on display at the National Gallery. The Art series was created in 1842 decades before the emergence of psychology. As a field of study, Cole captures a subjective psychological journey from birth to death while visually displaying the happiness curve over 150 years before the research would confirm its accuracy. This awareness is a gift prompting the question, What should we look out for as we navigate the rapids of life? The drive for status and social capital can lead one to compromise on priorities that fuel true happiness and contentment known as the hedonic treadmill. Researchers have observed that many people are getting wealthier but not happier.
Graham’s book, The Paradox of Miserable Millionaires and happy peasants highlights the conundrum, and this feeling of dissatisfaction can lead one to being dissatisfied about being dissatisfied. So perhaps we get snagged in midlife where we recognize that we don’t live forever, and that we wanna leave a legacy, see our impact. But the daily grind keeps us on the hedonic treadmill, searching for the stop or even the slow button. At 40 years old, I hit the stop button. And although I have no regrets on that decision, I recognize that there may have been a superior path. Jonathan and I discuss disruption versus integration. Many feel compelled to hit control at delete midlife like I did, But the higher probability of finding contentment is found by integrating new ideas, new concepts, new projects into life with an agile mindset. So how do we help ourselves and others during the stage in life?
Jonathan highlights that midlife isn’t a DIY project, but the stigma attached to the idea of a midlife crisis leads many to keep it quiet and stay isolated, making the instinctual response counterproductive to the actual solution. Authentic relationships in a supportive community play an important role in navigating through and beyond the trough of the happiness curve. Most important beef patient as a curve suggests happiness steadily improves at the later stages of life. That knowledge can help us collectively dispel the myth of a midlife crisis filled with red sports cars and wrinkle creams, as well as the grumpy old meer yelling, Get off my lawn. Therein lies a tremendous opportunity to rebuild society around what research is telling us about the natural trajectory of adult development. Before we kick off this fascinating conversation with one of the world’s leading thinkers, an exciting announcement about Ikigai Lab’s new digital platform at www.ikigailab.co. If you’re looking to connect with the community dedicated to improving wellbeing and increasing engagement, then this platform was created for you. Programs, tools, and events designed to help people unlock breakthroughs. To learn more, go to www.ikigailab.co. Now, please enjoy this episode of Ikigai Stories with Jonathan Rauch, author of The Happiness Curve.
Jonathan, thank you for being here. And you know, I first wanna start off by saying that when I initially reached out, I just completed reading your book, The Happiness Curve, and I felt like the book spoke directly to me. The book starts off with a story about Carl. And Carl is as he’s, at the time, he’s a 45 year old, you know, as achieved personal professional success married with two kids, he’s a PhD. And there’s a quote that I found where you’re describing Carl just to set context for the book. So it says, Carl isn’t depressed in the clinical or medical sense. He’s a vibrant, fully functional individual who has, in many ways, that count living his dream. No, not depressed, dissatisfied and dissatisfied about being dissatisfied. And he says, scared. And so with that as a backdrop and context, can you share the message of the happiness curve and, and some background on on why you wrote it?
Jonathan Rauch (06:02):
Well, maybe I’ll start with the background because Carl, who you just mentioned, was very similar to me. I’m a bit older than he is. I was in my late thirties around, around the time I turned 40, just hitting all my milestones in life, blowing them out of the park, doing better than I ever expected, yet weirdly dissatisfied. And I thought, Well, this’ll pass. This’ll go away. It didn’t. It continued. It got worse. By the time I was 45, I won the most prestigious award in magazine journalism, the, the equivalent of the Pulitzer. And I thought, Well, this’ll do it. This’ll turn me around now. I’ll feel like I’m spending my life, well, not wasting my time, not feel strange, impulsive needs to, you know, move somewhere. I’ll start from scratch, do something worthwhile with my life. Cause I knew these feelings were irrational and I knew I wasn’t depressed while winning that award did the trick for about, I would reckon, maybe 10 days.
And then it was right back to the same constant nagging sense of dissatisfaction. And then, then the worst thing about that was that I knew I wasn’t entitled to it. You know, it would be one thing if I had a cancer diagnosis, but I didn’t. Everything. It was a great time in my life objectively, but subjectively, I felt dissatisfied. That made it even worse because the gap between how I felt about my life and how grateful and excited I thought I should feel just made me feel worse about myself. So I didn’t know what was happening. I kept it secret. I didn’t even tell my husband about it. And it was pretty distressing, you know, it got pretty bad. It wasn’t, you know, a life hampering depression. And then one day I’m talking to a colleague at the think tank where I work. She’s an economist, She works on happiness, and she mentions the happiness uur.
And I kind of say, What’s that? And she spells it out for me that there’s this new evidence coming out of all places, economics, if you can believe that. Not psychology, not neuroscience. That’s finding a, what looks like a natural dip in wellbeing. Life satisfaction in midlife late thirties tends to bottom out in the mid to late forties or early fifties, and then rises again, right through old age. And now, this isn’t everybody we’re talking averages, we’re talking large populations, but, but it kept popping up. They found it by accident. No one expected to find it, but it kept popping out of the data. And here’s the the weird thing, Sam, it popped up after you adjusted for life circumstances. So that’s a concept that’s not immediately obvious, but what that means is, okay, maybe this dip is because of things going on in your life.
You know, your income, your kids, your employment, your health, your marital status, your educational status. So these are huge data sets. And these economists corrected for all that because you can do that. And even after they corrected it, that’s when they found this dip, which is suggesting there’s something going on in the aging process itself, not distinctively related to the conditions of your life, which is making many people unhappy at midlife. So I said, Hmm, well that sounds like me. I don’t have anything to be unhappy about or unsatisfied about, but I’m unhappy. I knew this wasn’t a form of depression. It’s about life satisfaction. It’s about how satisfied are you with your life as a whole. Very different question from, you know, how happy or sad do you feel today? What’s your mood? So I did a deep dive into this. I discovered that this is now a well confirmed phenomenon. I discovered that it turned up in chimps and orangutans mm-hmm. <affirmative> in 2012. And that’s when I said, Okay, I gotta write a book about this. Because just knowing about this phenomenon, knowing that it’s normal and natural and healthy, and that there are reasons for it having to do with changes in the brain and changes in in our emotional development over life, just knowing that it’s normal and healthy is such a relief.
Sam Ushio (10:05):
Can you extend on that with the concept of the hedonic treadmill? Yeah. Hedonic treadmill and, and also just you alluded to the, the feedback trap.
Jonathan Rauch (10:18):
Yeah, yeah. All of these things which are really interesting from psychology. So this is what comes up when you start to look for explanations for the happiness curve. And then you get into interesting stuff about psychology and, and, and brain wiring and everything else. just before we go there, I have to ask, did you experience the hedonic treadmill?
Sam Ushio (10:37):
Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. I mean, the story that I tell is that I worked in an industry and the financial services industry and the word growth was everywhere. And it was always defined by money. So it was grow the portfolio or grow the profitability of the business. And and I started to recognize that in the industry that professional and personal growth were an afterthought. And then I eventually forced reflection. And I noticed that my pattern of decision making was the same. And so that led me to ultimately make, make the entrepreneurial leap.
Jonathan Rauch (11:18):
Did you know about the hedonic treadmill?
Sam Ushio (11:21):
I didn’t. I found it after.
Jonathan Rauch (11:23):
You think if you had known it would’ve changed things?
Sam Ushio (11:28):
Yeah, I think it would. I think it would, because one of the takeaways that I had from your book, one of the many takeaways was about disruption versus integration. And I completely disrupt. I always talked about I’m running to something, not running from something. that’s nice. That was messaging that I used. but it still was disruptive. It wasn’t integrative in the sense that I was trying to test things out. I just pulled the plug and, you know, made it
Jonathan Rauch (11:59):
Around. Yeah, yeah, we should talk about that. But the hedonic treadmill is, it’s a very real thing. So humans, especially in our younger years, in our twenties and thirties, we’re pretty much wired to want to build status. Lots of friends, accomplishments, achievements, have the, have the family and the house and the income. We want status and we want social capital. The thing is, status and social capital leave you always wanting more. The goal post keeps moving, keep moving. The more you have, the more you want. You just put it in your pocket. But your expectations readjust. And economists who observe this, who are looking at people getting much richer but not happier, began calling it the hedonic treadmill. Hedonic refers to pleasure, happiness, and treadmill is obviously self-defining. And basically it means the fast you run, the more you stay in place. So how do you get out of that?
Well, it turns out what actually makes people happy in the long term is not status or material possessions. It’s connection to other people. It’s loving being loved, holding, being held, having close friendships, intimate ties, being part of your community. And those things are not a hedonic treadmill, actually. The more those things you have, the happier you feel and they build up over time, you don’t adjust to them with, with the hedonic stuff. you can be what I had with the magazine award makes you happy for 10 days, but then you readjust. So one of the takeaways from all this is that a reason for the happiness curve is we seem to be pretty much oriented in our youth to accomplish stuff and build status. Cuz you know, an evolution says that’s how you’re gonna get a great partner, right? It’s gonna, you’re gonna have lots of mat opportunities if you’re high status.
As we move toward the latter half of life, our priorities, and in fact, our brains reorganize more in the direction of how do I give back? How do I build connections across the generations? Maybe it’s grandchildren, maybe it’s volunteering, maybe it’s just being more part of your community. We tend to value the relationships more and put the status and achievement on the back burner. And that turns out to be very good for happiness. But in between, there’s kind of this rut because the old values are not making us satisfied anymore. We’ve started, begun to grow past them. We’ve realized we’re in a trap, a hedonic trap, where the more we have, the more we want. We feel like we’re gonna be stuck in that trap forever. What I have to do this another 10 or 20 years, it’s only gonna get worse. And the new values haven’t really kicked in yet. You know, we haven’t started to make the adjustment toward valuing giving more and connectedness more. So that makes this period of transition for many people, including me, a very, very difficult time and a dangerous time for the reason you mention a lot of people want to throw all the cards up in the air, disrupt their lives, start over. That’s not always a mistake, but it’s often, if not usually a mistake.
Sam Ushio (14:54):
Yeah. It’s, it’s, it can be a, a heck of a lot easier if you integrate versus disrupt, as I’ve, as I’ve learned. you know, one person that you talk about is Donald Richie. He’s a, he’s a devote t of the book. and in the epilogue called Gratitude, I believe it’s chapter 10, you talk about walking the streets of Tokyo with Donald in the summer of 1990. And you fast forward to right now where it’s 30 years later, it’s the summer of 2020. And when you, when you reflect on the 30 year anniversary of that walk can you talk about just what happened on that walk and how it, how it shaped your journey and, and ultimately what, what really resonates with that conversation or that experience with Donald?
Jonathan Rauch (15:45):
It was so simple, but so profound. Donald Richie was probably the greatest writer I’ve ever known personally. A famous, famous writer and commentator on Japan and culture in the arts, and a famous famous movie critic remarkable guy. it sounds like maybe you’re familiar with his work, which is really heartwarming. If, if, if you haven’t read The Inland Sea, his classic about his trip through the center of Japan in the sixties, early seventies. You, you really must, you’ll love it. So one day I was walking in Tokyo and Donald just threw off this observation. He said, Midlife crisis comes at some point when you’re around 40 and you look at your life and you think, really is this all it is? Is this, All my life is gonna be? And midlife crisis ends around 10 years later when you look at your life and you say, Hmm, actually this isn’t so bad.
And, you know, I tucked that away. I didn’t really, I was 30 at the time. I didn’t think it would apply to me. Cuz of course, you know, if I got my book published, even just one book published, then I’d be happy forever. Right? But by the time I was 40, that stuck with me. And by the time I started doing this book in my fifties, I would run this past psychologist. And they, they would say, That’s exactly right. That’s exactly what happens. A lot of what happens as we get older is as this change comes where we tend more to value the present, we tend to value friendship and connections and what we have today instead of what we seek tomorrow, as our time horizon, shorten all of those help us be more content with life, more present oriented. And that’s a good thing psychologically. It’s and that’s what Donald was basically describing,
Sam Ushio (17:29):
Acknowledging the present, being present in the moment. Is there, have you come across any research or findings that talk about happiness from a western perspective and happiness from an eastern perspective where, you know, happiness from a western perspective has a tendency to be high arousal from an eastern perspective. It’s more along the lines of contentment and low arousal. I remember there was a point in the book about the curve. I, I believe you referenced or the research referenced Japan in particular. But I’m, I’m just curious about from a cultural perspective. those cultures that are engineered more toward observing the present that’s kind of built into the culture versus those that, that aren’t,
Jonathan Rauch (18:26):
I didn’t do a lot of specific research on that sound. I know there’s a lot of research out there. And it turns out that eastern psychology and philosophy the wisdom traditions are right about a lot of things. One of the things we’ve learned in psychology and neurology lately is newfound respect for those traditions. And among those traditions are the ones you mentioned being more present oriented, focusing on, on gratitude building those core relationships and so forth. The, the aspect of that that I really did explore, which is to me my favorite chapter, the whole book, and the one I get to talk about the least is wisdom.
Sam Ushio (19:08):
Jonathan Rauch (19:08):
<affirmative> is a whole chapter on, on wisdom. It turns out that wisdom is a real thing in western science. Not just psychology, but actually medicine, psychiatry, neurology wisdom, which we kind of, we assume it’s like this folk tale thing, you know, the wise old owl, or we assume it’s some mystical eastern tradition and a gu on a mountain top. It’s not, it’s been defined in similar ways across all of human human history across all of cultures. It’s not the same as expertise, knowledge, or intelligence. It’s more to do with can you sort of transcend your needs of the moment and figure out how to solve life every day problems for yourself and for others. How to navigate these situations with detachment and balance. It’s very unique. It turns out it’s measurable. Psychologists can test for it. You can be trained to be wiser. And people have started realize.
And it’s also very closely linked, as you can imagine, with, with life satisfaction. And here’s the best thing, not just your own life satisfaction. Why is people help the other people in their lives be more satisfied? Wisdom is contagious because people give advice. They give friendship and counsel and just a sense of calm. So I saw that and said, you know, this is a big piece of the happiness equation. Becoming wiser. Cultivating wisdom is a value. I think it’s tragic that in America today, the biggest compliment you can give someone is, you know, Sam is really smart when that is so much less of a compliment than saying Sam is really wise. But when was the last time you heard anyone referred anybody else as wise? It’s kind of a forgotten value. And that’s, that’s pretty tragic.
Sam Ushio (20:54):
Yeah. Kale Graham, who, I believe that’s who you were referencing earlier, she was the, she was the researcher that influenced a lot of the happiness curve, Is that correct? Yeah.
Jonathan Rauch (21:05):
Carol Graham. Yeah. Brooking, Carol economist.
Sam Ushio (21:09):
Carol has a line in the book where, so, so she’s talking about the paradox of frustrated achievers and happy peasants. And she has a line in the book, or potentially it’s, it’s, it’s a line that, that you had pulled out or it says rapid change makes people very unhappy. And so when I think about just the inflection point in history that we’re in right now, where we’ve got a people in society, you know, largely sparked by a global pandemic, but has spread to shine light on everything from, you know, systemic racism to the value of education, to, to everything else. This inflection point in time that we’re in right now, What’s your sense in how that influences the happiness curve? And then I’ve got a follow up question, so I’ll just, I’ll stop right there. I’m just curious about this moment in
Jonathan Rauch (22:01):
Time. Well, I don’t, I don’t know that it inflections the happiness curve because that’s more of a built in thing. That’s a natural tendency that a lot of people have. It does influence happiness, which remember happiness, how happy you are, how satisfied with you are depends not just how old you are in life, which is one variable, but it also depends on lots of other things. I mentioned some of them do you have enough to eat? Are you happily or unhappily married? Do you have a job? Is it a good job? how’s your health? All of these things go into the mix. And that’s one of the reasons that a midlife unhappiness can be so hard to sort through. It’s hard to know what is, what is causing this, right? Is it my job? Is it my family? Is it just my age?
You need to know that to figure out how to address it, which is why I think work like coaching or maybe the kind of service you’re providing is so important and helps people sort through all these variables. But if you’re worried just about happiness, not about age and happiness, that relationship, which is what my book is about, then yeah, these are very stressful times. It’s gonna be harder to be happy in a situ in a country that is deeply polarized and divided, and where you’re dealing with a pandemic and you don’t have any certainty about when the schools will be reopening and when you’re not sure if the economy will recover. And when change is coming at you at the very, very high rate of speed that it does in the age of globalization and social media. And when some of the props that we rely on in human society to keep us steady over time have been weakened. Organized religion, for example has been very much weakened. A lot of institutions like the neighborhood associations that we would go to for friendship and support the clubs, the civic groups, a lot of those have been weakened. many people are in family situations now that are more isolated or, or unstable. So yeah, we’re being hit with a lot right now in America. Not the worst. We’ve been hit with by a long shot. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, that’s for sure. But we’re being hit by a lot.
Sam Ushio (24:06):
Yeah. I mean, is there a reexamination? So social isolation has obviously been a problem and is amplified in the moment that we’re in right now, but is there a, is there a like a reexamination that’s happening in terms of what matters? Getting back to the core of the values that you’re talking about, do you think this forces people to reconcile with their own mortality, which then cascades into better decision making at some point when the fog lifts
Jonathan Rauch (24:39):
Not on a national scale, maybe for some people on an individual scale seems to have happened with you, right? Yeah. And you’re, and you’re not alone. I’m not alone. and I think the message is seeping out there little by little. Yeah. That happiness comes from giving to others and having the love and support of others and loving others and supporting them. I think people are starting to get more attuned to that. On the other hand, there are a lot of negative forces that are making these things hard. There are all the stressors that I mentioned, social media, the economy, the pandemic employment is a lot less stable than it used to be. You know, my my father’s generation, you got a job and basically you retired from that job 30 years later or 40 years later, whatever. So a lot going on.
Sam Ushio (25:26):
Yeah. Voyage of Life, I believe you, you said you had first seen that painting in 1980. Can you talk about that incredible work of art, how it impacted you and how it really lays the, the foundation for the happiness curve?
Jonathan Rauch (25:46):
Yeah. Maybe you can put a link in the show notes. The the paintings are easy to find online. So I just turning 20, I was probably 19 sophomore in college on, on winter break, paid my first visit to the National Gallery in Washington. And I’m walking along and suddenly I turn a corner and there’s large walls filled with four giant paintings, very large impressive paintings called The Voyage of Life by Thomas Cole, a famous American landscape artist, died young, died, died at age 46, and they depict four stages of life, childhood youth, manhood, also known as middle age and old age. And I remember looking at them, the childhood picture is a, a baby, a small baby riding in a boat steered by an angel in an idyllic river environment, just having come out from the darkness of the cave of the womb. The second one was a youth, maybe 18, 19, 20, about the age I was then with golden hair, now steering the boat for himself.
He’s on a river of, of life. guardian angel now is not steering, but is nearby on shore behind him watching. And, and the, the, the young man is reaching for a castle in the sky, which hovers over the river in the clouds, a a golden castle. That’s where he’s headed, that’s where the river is going. What we can see in the painting from our level that he cannot, is that the river is going to turn away from the castle in the sky. But, but we don’t. But he doesn’t know that. But I realize that’s exactly where I was. I was that same age. I was starting my journey. I was steering my own boat, and I believe that great things lay ahead for myself. I didn’t know what they were, I didn’t know myself or my talents or even my ambitions, but I just said, There must be greatness out there somewhere.
And if I can just achieve some small fraction of prominence or greatness, I’ll be happy for the rest of my life. I, that’s what I want. Classic status, ambition and a good thing in a young person. That’s, that’s what we want, right? I mean, Right. You don’t want your kid’s ambition to be, to sit on the sofa playing, playing video games. so the third painting is called Manhood. And it shows where the river actually goes. And now suddenly it’s a dark, stormy environment there. Rain clouds overhead and the boat is in rapids, rapid water, rocky water the tiller is broken. The guardian angel is now looking down, but from far away, out of sight. And the man in middle age is fearful. He’s classed his hand, he’s looking at the heavens just hoping to be delivered from this environment, which he, he, you know, he’s gonna hit the rocks anytime again.
We can see what he cannot, cuz we’re at an elevated altitude. We can just see that beyond the rocks in this rapids are calm waters ahead. But I remember thinking to myself when I was 20, Well, that’ll never happen to me because unless things really break up for me, unless I do really badly, even if things go a little bit, well, even if I don’t starve to death and have a decent job and an okay life, I will be grateful for that because that’ll be so much better than being what I am at 19, you know, a student, no money, no prospects, no nothing. and then the last painting is old age. And the man is now, he’s now an old man and he’s instilled water, and the angels are coming to take him up to heaven. So this stuck with me. I thought, they’re beautiful paintings go see them if in the National Gallery, if you can.
They’re magnificent, they’re beloved. They have a whole room to themselves. But I, they came back to me when I got to, to my forties and was exactly where that middle aged man was in the paintings. Except that’s when I realized when I was working on this book and in this journey, what I’d missed when I was in my twenties, I thought Cole was painting the actual voyage of life, our objective conditions. So life is harder in middle age, you know, maybe you’re having trouble with your kids or your marriage or whatever. What I didn’t notice is in Cole’s paintings, there are no people, there are no buildings, there’s no civilization. It’s just this one human on a river. And a guardian angel. And I realized later, he’s painting a psychological journey. He’s telling us how it feels to be at every age, not how, not our circumstances, but our subjective feelings. And he got it exactly right. The modern science shows. He nailed it. So that’s really cool. That became the frontest piece of my book and kind of the, the lasting inspiration. And it also tells you the happiness curve is not news. It’s been known about for centuries under different names.
Sam Ushio (30:59):
Yeah, absolutely. I mean, I, I love the fact that the paintings are, are actually on the sleeves of the book. I mean, I have frequently looked at those, those pictures as you reference them throughout the pages. I’m curious, the, when did the painting find you again? So it found you for the first time when you’re 19 years old. When did it find you again and did it find you before you won the major award at 45 years old?
Jonathan Rauch (31:28):
Well, it never unfound me because every time I visited the National Gallery, especially with a friend, I would show off these paintings. I’d say, these are really important to me and to a lot of people. They’re beloved. So I didn’t forget about them, but it was really my forties. And then doing the work on this book around the time I was 50, which led me to rediscover and take a harder look at them and see what was going on with them.
Sam Ushio (31:51):
Mm. Okay. So Carl, come back to Carl. so you opened the book with Carl. You closed the book with Carl. Were you and Carl going fishing? Yeah. And I believe it’s the first time in 50 years for you fishing, casting a line. Yeah,
Jonathan Rauch (32:11):
I did better the second time. <laugh>, I caught
Sam Ushio (32:14):
Something. It was zero the first time, wasn’t it?
Jonathan Rauch (32:16):
Zero? Yeah. I don’t think there were any fish in that. Like
Sam Ushio (32:19):
It was an urban, urban fishing.
Jonathan Rauch (32:22):
No, it was outside Prescott, Arizona, but no one in my family knew how to fish, so. Okay. Okay. We never caught anything when I was 10.
Sam Ushio (32:30):
Yeah. you set the bar, you set the bar low. I’m curious about Carl. Is there any update on Carl and have you connected with Carl during Pandemic World that we’re in?
Jonathan Rauch (32:42):
Yeah, I did a Zoom call with Carl a couple months ago. and he’s, he’s turned the corner. He’s a actually just, just got a new job and it looks like a terrific thing. And he’s, but the more important thing is the stage of life he was at where, you know, he’d come home in his forties and look at his family, look at his wife and look at his kids and think, Is this it, Is this all there is? Even though he knew that objectively, he was very lucky. He’s, he’s passed that. and we become friends. It’s been very gratifying to, to be with him on the journey. I think knowing me and knowing the book and talking about the book with me while I was working on it, helped him in his journey.
Sam Ushio (33:27):
Have you gone fishing since then?
Jonathan Rauch (33:29):
Well, we’re in Coronavirus since a third time. We’re we’re planning to,
Sam Ushio (33:34):
How about the recipe as a, as a 43 year old you know, who feels like I’ve troughed, like I’m on the upward slope. What’s the, and I know there’s not a recipe for success, there’s not a turnkey one size fits all, but what are the key tenants that you know, someone in their mid to late thirties should consider as they start to move into this stage in life?
Jonathan Rauch (34:04):
Well, there are a bunch of things here. There’s, there are two chapters in the book that are prescriptive about how to cope with the, the happiness curve. The first thing to say is not everyone finds themselves in it. We’re talking about averages, big populations. A lot of people do great in their forties. so this is addressed to the people who are experiencing what you and I both felt, which by the way, is just as common among women as men. There’s, there’s no genderedness at all, which surprises people to learn. So part of what can be done is individual. It’s in the realms of things we can do for ourselves. And there’s a bunch of those, and I won’t try to list them all, but they include, don’t let yourself get isolated. Find people you can talk to about this. There’s nothing to be ashamed of in isolating, trying to deal with this completely on your own and secrecy makes it worse.
Another is understand that it’s completely normal. Don’t panic. I panicked. I thought, my God, I’m becoming depressed. What’s wrong with me? Is this gonna be forever? It’s normal. It’s a natural and healthy transition. It’s like adolescence in that way. It’s often unpleasant to go through and it brings some challenges. But you come out the other side, the better for it. There’s a reason for it. There’s a payoff. And we, we can come to that. A third is the one that you mentioned earlier, which is just because you’re having a midlife trough doesn’t mean you don’t need change in life. Change is often good at any time of life, but this is a treacherous time for change cuz it’s very hard. Know whether the restlessness and unhappiness you’re feeling is because of specific problems in your life or whether it’s just your age. And if it’s mostly your age, then you can throw a good marriage or job away and wind up exactly where you started because it’s your age.
It’s hard to tell. So the advice here is what you referred to in earlier. Look for integrative change. Try not to throw away your accomplishments, your connections, your knowledge, your skills. Try to look for ways that you can change in a positive direction that build on what you already have their logical, discuss it with people. The model where you come home one night and say, Honey, I’m moving to Tahiti. That’s not a good model <laugh>. So consult with other people, make it a change that makes sense. A change that I call it step don’t leap is very important. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, another thing to do is I’m a big fan of life coaching. I’m not sure what ay guys going to do, but it may be in this, in this world, working with a coach can help you surface values conflicts. Coaches are so coaches not like therapy.
Mm-hmm. It’s, there’s not, not trying to cure you. There’s nothing wrong with you. coaches an ally who will, who is seen situations like yours, and they ask a lot of questions and they help you surface. So what are your values right now? And how do we work to align your life more in tune with your values? And that’s not a DIY project. We need help talking those things through and thinking them through. And coaching is a really good model for that. So that’s something I tell people to do. and there’s also nothing wrong with getting counseling these days. Most good psychologists are aware of these problems and they’ll, they will make fun of you. they won’t put you, send you straight onto antidepressants or send you to the, you know, psychiatric hospital. So they get it. And that can be helpful too.
biggest piece of advice for individuals is waited out. Just remember this is, in many cases, this goes away by itself. It’s like, I don’t know, acne or ness or a lot of other things. Time is on your side when you’re in one of these these midlife malays. So, you know, it will get, it will get better. And in fact it gets way better. people’s life satisfaction, the, the, the strongest science of all is also the most surprising. Life satisfaction increases fifties, sixties, seventies, even eighties and beyond. So there’s another whole chapter, I’m talking for too long, I’m filibustering. But the second bucket of things that really help are the things that we cannot do for ourselves. These are things we need others to work on. And that’s the, for me, the biggest takeaway of the book is midlife should not be a DIY project.
we need to support our friends and family member who may be going through a, a midlife malaise. We need social changes like provisions so that people can have a gap year in midlife. We need to change the education system so that people who are ready to change into a new phase of life, one that’s more about contributing and less about status climbing, can go back to school, get re-equipped. I believe that probably your business is, is part of that. But we need a whole social infrastructure to support people who are going through this life change and make the most of it. Because the good news is that people are living longer than ever. Compared to my father’s generation. We already have 15, 10, 15 years of additional life. And it’s in the, in the most prosocial and satisfied part of life. And this is, I claim this is the single biggest gift in the entire history of the human species.
And we’re getting it right now up to 20 years of additional life in that happiest most prosocial part of life. And using that means we can’t throw it away by just telling people at age 60, Well, you know, you gotta retire. There’s nothing left for you to do. The world belongs to the young. These are people who are gonna be healthy for maybe 30 more years and they’re ready to give back. And they’re a font of experience and knowledge and wisdom and they and everyone else are better off if we utilize that. So a big part of solving the happiness curve is rebuilding society to support what we now know is the natural trajectory of adult development.
Sam Ushio (40:04):
So there were a couple things that you said in there. So you, you in the book, and also you articulated very eloquently right there, just making the case for second adolescence, right? So the second adolescence and carving that out as a stage in life that’s not represented by a red sports car. So moving forward into the future, and I, and if you think about just a general perspective of the millennial generation in terms of, you know, a better sense of balance, we’ll just say a better sense of life, work life balance, if we just capture that moving forward. If, if the second adolescence is carved out as a stage and there is this cultural acceptance of a gap year or some version of a gap year, do you think that starts to, to change the curve? And probably the the best way to articulate that is how much of this is society driven and how much of this is biologically driven? Cause if it’s happening to the primates, they’re not on Twitter.
Jonathan Rauch (41:06):
Yeah. Yeah. Chimpanzees and iang tans are not on Twitter. this is a great question, Sam, and unfortunately the answer is science does not have the answer to that question yet. Maybe someday we will. We know it’s both cultural, social on the one hand and biological on the other. We know it’s biological because you can see changes in the brain with age, and there are changes in ways that would tend to make us happier. Older brains are more responsive to positive stimuli and less responsive to negative stimuli. They show less emotional volatility, more steadiness, less stress. And you put people in brain scanners and see this. So it’s as objective as it gets. And we also know that because different societies, you see the happiness you curve in most societies, but it has different levels and different shapes. So Russia’s a very unhappy country in which the happiness curve bottoms out so late in life that most people die first, which is not good.
America’s a much happier country. So the curve is higher and it bottoms out sooner in life and people live longer. So that shape means people live more of their longer lives feeling happier. And so since humans are the same, more or less everywhere, we know that there’s a big social component as well as a big biological component. so it’s both. And the answer is we don’t know how much is one and how much is the other. I think we’ll never get rid of the happiness curve completely, nor would we want to. I mean, we wouldn’t wanna get rid of adolescence, we just wanna provide buffers and social support so the kids who are having difficulty in that period get through it. But we understand it is a natural part of human adult development. And ultimately it’s a good part. There’s a payoff for the happiness curve.
Additional wisdom, additional life satisfaction. none of the people I interviewed for my book, or nor people in surveys who were in their seventies say that they would wanna be in their twenties again. They really like it where they are. And I’m experiencing that too. I just turned 60 and by God, it, this is better. Or believe me, can’t wait to be 70. So you don’t really have to know how much is one or the other. But what you do know is we can make this a lot easier for people in the trough if, for example, we stop making fun of them. You, you alluded to the red sports car. Our, our viewers can’t see it, but you’re nodding emphatically, right? So what’s the worst possible thing you can do for someone experiencing midlife, malays, midlife, trough, crisis, whatever you want to call, make fun of them.
Say, Oh, when you’re gonna buy your red sports car, Sam having, Sam’s having his midlife crisis, right? I mean it’s like, hey, Mr. 15 year old, look at those zits on your face must suck to be a teenager. Correct? He as stupid as bison. But I mean, we don’t do that. We understand that to be cruel. So the stereotyping and mockery of midlife crisis is totally unhelpful. Makes people ashamed. It makes them hold them in. They think if they tell their, if, if, you know, if they, if their employer finds out about it, even their spouse find out about it mm-hmm. <affirmative>, they’ll be in trouble. So just even just having a little bit more compassion for and support for the people in your life who are going through a, a midlife transition, even that by itself being there for them earning their trust so they can talk to you about it even that is super helpful to people.
Sam Ushio (44:35):
Love it. well so be before I close here I’ve got one point to close on, but I’m, I’m just curious, what does the, the future look like? What’s the best version of an outcome from, from this work?
Jonathan Rauch (44:54):
Yeah, I’m optimistic. I think a lot of things have to change, but they’re starting to change already. And the magic ingredient is gonna be you and your generation. You’re what, 43? you’ve read this book now. So, and this research is here. This, this stuff was not known when I was, when I was going through it, or only just at the very beginning to be known. Well now it’s well known and you know it, and your kids are gonna know it. and there’s a lot of demand in your generation for different ways of doing things for job structures that are more flexible for educational programs. Not just in the first 20 years in life, but later in life. So I’m optimistic that your generation is going to lead a lot of these social changes I talked about that are going to reattune society to be more supportive of people who are going through a transition and who are ready to make a change in life.
And you guys are gonna demand it, right? You’re not gonna retire at 65 to play golf and do nothing until you drop dead. You don’t want that, right? You’re gonna look for entire new dimensions of life. you’re already doing that. You’re gonna continue to do that. You guys, your generation conceives life not as a job, followed by retirement, followed by death. You guys conceive of life more as a narrative story of a journey. So I’m pretty optimistic, actually. It won’t happen overnight. We have a lot of work to do. We haven’t even touched on age discrimination, which is a big obstacle to people in middle age and beyond who are repurposing. There’s a lot of bias against older people, all of it, by the way, based on false preconceptions about older people. So there’s a lot of work to, to be done. But I am pretty confident that in 20 years, you’re 17 years younger and 17 years when you’re 60, the world is gonna look a lot better and more supportive than it does now.
Sam Ushio (46:49):
Well, so I said that, that I, I was gonna move toward the close, but that sparked a question about intergenerational. So wisdom is your favorite chapter and intergenerational mentorship communities that allow for connection between multiple generations. is that, I don’t know what the question is. It seems like that’s kind of leading toward a, toward a solution, but mm-hmm. <affirmative>
Jonathan Rauch (47:20):
It is, it’s
Sam Ushio (47:21):
A thing. Is that on the, on the hunt? Yeah.
Jonathan Rauch (47:22):
It’s a thing. There’s a marvelous book about that by one of my mentors and advisors on the book, Mark Friedman, who’s a pioneer of what’s called the the encore Movement. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, This is launching, relaunching life. You’re again nodding your head vigorously, which suggests you’re in touch with him or his movement as you, as you build your own, you’re a piece of this, right? That’s exactly what you’re doing in, in Ikigai. So he just wrote a book about this, I think it’s called How to Stay Young Forever. But it makes the point that the segregation of society in America into age groups, so that young people only rarely encounter old people is crazy and very unnatural from a historic point of view. It looks like the reason that older age tends to be associated with more of the qualities that help us be wise.
They don’t guarantee you’re be wise. We all know a lot of non wise old people. <laugh> wisdom is rare and precious at any age, but the reason it tends to be associated with wisdom seems to be what biologists call the Grand Grandmother effect, which is kids do better and all of society does better when older people are mingled with younger people in a regenerative process of passing down knowledge and wisdom that’s found in several animal species and it’s found in humans. And we throw that away when sixties people in their sixties and seventies go off to live in Sun City and in order, you know, in order to feel young when you’re 65, cuz there are no kids around. And that is also starting to change. It’s turning out that it is really good for adults and also really good for children to be around, to be in an intergenerational environment. Kids love it, adults love it. And now increasingly you’re starting to see communities that are structured around those situations and schools that are structured around it and places like elder care and assisted living and independent living places that are actually bringing in children, involving children are built in communities that have children. So yeah, it’s a thing, it’s part of the solution. It’s one example of the reinvention of the aging arc in America that we are, we and specifically your generation, is leading
Sam Ushio (49:39):
Well. So I’d like to, to close with Donald Richie again. there’s a part toward the end of the book where you mentioned that Donald who had no kids said that books were his children. And he says they make their way into the world and he’s, they’re they’re doing always surprises him. And a quote that you had in the book was, One of my aspirations for this book is to bring a measure of relief and reassurance to suffering through a mystifying midlife slump. So as a representative of one <laugh> you know, I can say I’ve clearly benefited from, from your work and I have a better sense of the journey that I’m on inspired to help others on their journey. And you know, I have a commitment to, to help them unlock breakthroughs to, you know, accelerate this awareness of this midlife malaise, but also this, this bounty that exists in what Mark Friedman calls Encore adulthood. Right. So, thank you very much for your time. Thank you for writing the book. I really appreciate it. Thank you, Sam. Pleasure to be with you.