Not long ago, I had one in what is bound to be a long series of old-person moments.
Over lunch, a friend and colleague in her early twenties was telling me about how she was struggling to choose a career path. She faced pressure from her family, competition from her peers, and feared messing up a decision that could affect her for years to come.
Yet to my astonishment, she hadn’t invited me to lunch to ask for career advice. Which incidentally is probably for the best — my career has been less of a steady climb to the top, and more of a trans-continental roller coaster. Instead, she asked me something much broader: What can I do to be happier?
After giving it some thought, I came to an unfortunate conclusion: As far as I was concerned, not much could have made my twenties happier. I had to go through the experiences I went through to become the person I am today.
That being said, there are definitely some things I know now that I wish I had known in my twenties. Things that could, maybe, have flattened the infamous happiness u-curve.
There’s no “u” in happiness
Recent studies have shown again and again that our perceived happiness fluctuates over the course of our lives to form a u-curve. It’s moderately high in our early 20s, then steadily descends until the dreaded “mid-life crisis,” until ultimately going back up and peaking as we head into retirement.
This curve has always intrigued me, especially since it puts me smack in the middle of that long descent into misery. The usual explanations we see are linked to stress, family obligations, comparing ourselves to others, and not meeting our own unrealistic expectations for where we should be in life.
But I have a somewhat different theory, just based on how things have been going for me so far. This is purely subjective and not based in science, but perhaps it will resonate with some of you. My theory is that the u-curve is the result of instability; a shift in balance between two incompatible ways of looking at life.
Holding on to a burning fuse
In my early 20s, I had a lot on my mind. I was afraid of failing to get into a good university, failing to start a solid career, failing to enjoy my early years as much as I was supposed to, and so on. A lot of the stress I was carrying had to do with what was happening in the moment, and whether that could bring me to how I wanted my life to look like in the future.
At the time, life was like an endless hallway with infinite doors. The doors I opened led to other endless hallways, and those I didn’t became closed to me forever. Every door I didn’t open carried an opportunity cost, but every door I did revealed new and exciting paths that I had never before seen or even imagined. The anxiety I felt from missed opportunities was crippling at times, but it was at least somewhat counteracted by excitement about the future. I was in the stable plane of the u-curve.
Things started to change once I was already cruising in my career — when I hit the quarter-century mark. Opening new doors was no longer giving me that same rush. I was obsessing over the paths I hadn’t taken. To feel the sense of excitement and purpose that had animated my late teens, I needed to embark on a more daring adventure — which, looking back, was probably what motivated my decision to leave Switzerland (at the age of 26) and move to Japan.
That’s when the door metaphor started falling apart for me altogether. The doors only make sense when looking at the world from the present, with limited options ahead and unlimited missed opportunities behind. But at that point, life began to appear more as a whole. I was holding in my hand a burning fuse, the fire slowly crackling beside my clenched fist, with a big chunk of rope already burned to ash.
My attachment to the present wasn’t yet entirely gone; I still saw my decisions as a funnel of possibilities. However, on top of that, I also began understanding that time was much more than just a part of some equation. It was the fundamental currency of life itself
In other words, my decisions weren’t just important because they meant missing other opportunities. They were important because everything I did carried I price tag — one that I could only settle by giving away a piece of my existence.
A delicate balancing act
This shift from first seeing life extend onward from the present, to then considering it as a whole is, I suspect, the deeper reason behind the massive slump in the happiness curve. By the time we are mature enough to accept that life is a lit fuse — and act accordingly — so much of it is already gone that we succumb to existential dread.
While dealing with anxiety is hard enough, I believe fear and regret are far worse demons. Nothing could be more detrimental to our happiness than to stare at all the ash on the ground and imagine the things we could have made with it. And because the fuse never stops burning, regret too must be paid for in the currency of time.
It seems that the common reaction for many is to either become paralyzed by indecision, or lash out against oblivion by making radical and irrational decisions. This kind of erratic behavior drives people further down the rabbit hole, culminating at the lowest point in the u-curve; the notorious mid-life crisis.
And yet, data shows that most of us find our way out of the slump. Once the mid-life crisis has been overcome, people in their late 50s and 60s report unprecedented levels of happiness. Beyond even when they had the youth, potential and drive of young adulthood. Why so?
I can’t pretend to fully understand the answer just yet, but I have a hunch. My theory is that those beaming grandpas and grandmas have completed the great shift.
Every moment counts
When time is all that’s left, every moment becomes invaluable. Research shows the elderly are happier because they have gained a healthier perspective on life; a new appreciation for their time on Earth. The end is clearer than ever, which means that finally, they can focus their mental energy not on some wild hypotheses of where life may take them, but rather on making the most out of every last step.
When we’re young, we have lived so little that every bit of life has too much meaning. Every decision is connected to our identity, to who we will become, to our dreams and aspirations — all these future fantasies where we think true happiness awaits us.
Then, in the crisis stage, all meaning is lost. Everything is ephemeral, all decisions become subjected to the cold fatalism of time. We feel constrained, claustrophobic, squeezed by the grasp of death, and in our dread we react instinctively by either freezing in terror or lashing out in denial.
But once we pass that stage, meaning returns. Not the weighty burdensome meaning from our youth, but a richer, more delicate meaning. Every action we take becomes precious, valuable, and intimately our own.
This new meaning can be a bottomless source of energy and inspiration. The absurdity of the human condition no longer appears before us every night like an infinite void, ticking away the days before the inescapable moment when we slide off into non-existence. Instead, we get a canvass. Not quite blank, as society and our past naivete have already filled in much of the background. But still, with more than enough space left for us to express our radical freedom.
Flattening the happiness curve
What were the moments in your life when you felt the happiest? For me, it was when I felt lost in the now. Surrounded by friends on a road trip in a new and exiting part of the world. Putting all of my energy and creativity into a project I cared deeply about. Opening my heart to write and watching in awe as words pour out faster than I can put them to paper.
I don’t believe we can skip stages in life. Nobody is born thinking about life as a fuse, just as no centenarian still sees an endless hallway. We need to feel the pressure of lost opportunity to be able to experience existential dread. We need to embrace and accept existential dread to understand in the depth of our being what it means to be truly free. And finally, exercising that freedom to fill in the canvas of our lives is the only way to achieve lasting happiness.
We cannot reshape the happiness curve into an upward slope, but maybe we can flatten it a bit. For that, I wanted my young friend to know two things.
First, we’re all in this together. We may have different boats, we may be going down different rivers, but our journeys have much in common, and they all come to end. By sharing our experiences and thoughts across cultures and generations, we can lighten the psychological burden of facing the unknown.
The second is that by being aware of what is to come, we can move more swiftly through the rough parts. The u-curve is an average; some people reach peak happiness much faster, whereas others struggle in the slump for longer. By being conscious of the journey ahead, being aware of what we feel and that better times are yet to come, we can reach understanding faster, and have more time left to be happy.
Unfortunately, I couldn’t tell my friend that she was just a skip and a hop away from true happiness. But I could share my experience, and encourage her to seek the wisdom of those who have lived much longer than we. And while true happiness may not be around the corner, I truly believe we’ll reach that peak someday. There, we’ll find the kind of happiness that neither she nor I have ever felt before.
With the right mindset, who knows. Maybe we’ll get there sooner that we think.