The 18th of June last year was a Tuesday like most others. I got up, did some work, ate my lunch and, at around 4pm, departed from my south London flat to Islington for a pot of tea with my friend David Baker, a lecturer at The School of Life. In the evening, I attended my weekly tai chi class before returning to home on a swaying overground train. Radio Four's 10pm headlines were probably related to Brexit, and my final thoughts of the day would have been like other events in this 24-hour block of time: nothing-y and evanescent. It was an everyday kind of day, free of depressive episodes or overspills of anxiety; no explosive interpersonal conflicts or heart-stopping news.
All in all, it was insignificant enough to mark an equally immaterial event: this was the day I turned 47.2 – and if you too can remember your 47.2nd birthday, you're either lying, or an economist.All in all, it was insignificant enough to mark an equally immaterial event: this was the day I turned 47.2 – and if you too can remember your 47.2nd birthday, you're either lying, or an economist.
One such number cruncher is the esteemed David “Danny” Blanchflower, former member of the Bank of England's Monetary Policy Committee, who earlier this year published an academic paper identifying this precise moment as the age of minimum wellbeing – the nadir of what academics refer to as life-satisfaction, and what we civilians know as “happiness”. On average, it hits the floor at 47.2 years old.
For some time now, data has suggested that happiness follows a U-shaped curve across life, dropping as life gathers in gravity, before rising again as middle age fades into one's dotage. "The happiness curve is everywhere,” Blanchflower's paper noted, meaning, it's both provable and global. But it also timestamps what folk wisdom has long identified: the so-called "midlife crisis", along with the flavours that often blend into it: awareness of one's physical weakening and declining virility, plus the existential, meaning-of-life-type dilemmas, and perhaps burnout due to years of stress.
In other cases, it can mean a full mental health crisis or "nervous breakdown”. Some of these have distinct biomarkers and diagnostic criteria, others are more blurry. But one or other of these things seem to happen to most men, and somewhere around this apparently arbitrary age of 47.2.
While it's been observed that the only guarantees in life are death and taxes, this midlife dip has a character that's been chorused everywhere from the novels of John Updike and Martin Amis to Kevin Spacey's turn in American Beauty. Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters was only 30-odd when, with unnerving prescience, he wrote the lyrics to “Time”. He noted the remorseless grind of ageing, where "you run and you run to catch up with the sun but it's sinking,” and how “you're older, shorter of breath and one day closer to death." Adding with excruciating poignancy that “hanging on in quiet desperation is the English way”, it's a safe bet that Waters' observations have sound-tracked many a suburban salaryman's quiet breakdown. But is all this genuinely inevitable? And, if not, what can be done to obviate Peak Misery, or deal with it once its arrived?
According to Paul Dolan, professor of behavioural science at the LSE and author of the bestselling book Happiness by Design, the 47.2 figure is robust, but as with other statistics, it hides complex truths. “When you look more at direct experiential measures, such as how happy, stressed or angry you [feel] as you go about your day, then that U-shape is not so clear,” Dolan says. “Our balance of emotions changes: when you're younger you experience more aroused emotions, as you get older you go to non-aroused emotions – from feeling joy to feeling content, for example.”
Dolan's first book anatomised the dynamics of happiness and concluded that the good life is found in the balance of doing things for pleasure, and doing things for purpose. But finding that balance takes effort. “Every self-help book will say, ‘Be positive’, and you might think, yeah I've worked that out – but how? It's about implementing change through action and embedding that into your daily routine.”
Dolan's latest book Happy Ever After furthers this ‘change what you do, not how you think’ strategy and examines the scripts many of us unconsciously follow, yet which may not deliver the happiness we seek. "I focus on the constraints people face in trying to be happy,” he says. “Some of those are significant in relation to the U-shape: you're fed a story of success, status, marriage and kids, things you're meant to tick off. Some of those things are really good and it's silly to say that no one should get married. But it's hard to step off that narrative wheel – society and your family expect things of you, and we place expectation on ourselves. And they're not for everybody."
Considering the common aspiration to be wealthy, Dolan notes, “It's true that poverty makes people miserable, but it's also true that being very rich doesn't make us much happier.” Studies have proved that “income satiation” exists: after a certain point, more money doesn't equate to more happiness.
The Breaking Point
Needless to say, there's a lot going on behind the bald 47.2 datapoint. Those Tuesday pots of tea I share with my friend David have been a regular fixture of my life since – five years ahead of the curve – I had a breakdown at the age of 42, while living in Berlin. A lifelong sufferer of depression and anxiety, I was taken to a mental health crisis centre, where clinicians added “major depressive episode” to my medical record. I have learnt the difference between suicidal ideation (thinking about doing it) and suicidal intention (intending to do it). Action is the next step and it's a vector I was following.
Instead, I put a message on Facebook saying "I need help"; help arrived, and life has been very different since. Time has allowed me to see which other classically midlife, masculine stresses fed into all this: the long-term pressure of an aggravating job (I was editor of a fashion magazine); a physical illness (glandular fever) combined with a lack of self-care, even self-compassion; some gigantic unanswerable questions around identity; a love affair that was delightful and traumatic in equal measure. “Major depressive episode” is a term from the DMS-5, the American diagnostic manual. But I've wondered if burnout and breakdown, and “midlife”, “existential” and “mental health” crises are all circles in the same Venn diagramme.
This is the kind of thing my friend David lectures on at The School of Life, a global organisation that aims to educate on issues such as resilience and self-understanding. “It's not surprising that this period of life is the least satisfying,” he says. “The dreams we had aren't going to happen, and we need a period of mourning: I probably won't be a great novelist or a CEO or an athlete. We have to live in disappointment for a while.” The upward curve in the U-shape is a period of release. “Very old people are experts at this, knowing that they don't have to achieve everything they set out to do. But this midpoint is a gear change, and gear changes are always hard.”
David points out that this period of life is also when two other events are most likely. Firstly, the end of a significant relationship: the average age for divorce among men in opposite-sex couples was 46.4 in 2017, according to the ONS. Parachuted back into the singles market, fortysomething men with saggier skin and emotional baggage find the game harder, and the protocols unfamiliar.
Simultaneously there's a shrinkage in the possibilities for advancement at work. "A guy may have risen quite neatly through an organisation, but there’s a bottleneck: there are fewer senior options, and along comes the realisation that he might be middle-manager forever. You become the person you resolved not to be: the slightly grey, overworked corporation man." And what saner ways are there to deal with this disappointment than buying a canary-yellow Lamborghini and embarking on an affair with Claire from accounts? Plenty, as it happens.
Forging Your Path
It's possible to see 47.2 as a symbolic eventuality rather than a temporal inevitability. Talking to male friends who are on either side of the nadir, 47.2 is akin to the Yeti: somewhat fugitive, rarely foreseen but ferocious to encounter. But like all difficult experiences which cannot be got around, only gone through – heartbreak, grief, redundancy, illness and failure – lessons learned in adversity often prove the most enduring.
Sam is a 31-year-old UX designer who found himself accelerated into the canyon of midlife much earlier than usual. In 2017, four months into a new relationship, he and his partner discovered she was pregnant, and since then their lives have been drastically reorganised: they quit London, bought in a place north Yorkshire and launched two businesses. The average age for fatherhood in the UK is 33.4, and Sam had yet to turn 30.
“I often feel like an 18-year old thrust into the position of being a responsible adult without any tools or training," he says. Sam describes taking the leaps of faith that are usually left to later life. “Four months into any relationship, you rarely have certainty that this is the person you want to commit to spending a good portion of your life with. But we had to make a call about whether to keep the child. People often say, ‘trust your intuition’. But I had no intuition, we just made a decision, primarily based on my girlfriend's well-being. Thankfully, it was a good decision.”
Sam and his partner were both involved in the shiny, often faddish worlds of tech and design in London. Their relocation to an altogether less aspirational milieu has, however, offered something else: freedom from the paradox of choice, and the trappings of trendy bars and overpriced metropolitan experiences. And while he's conscious of a certain looming truth in his life – 47.2 was when his own father had a depressive episode – Sam's engagement with the brass-tacks of reality has proved liberating. People are formed by their circumstances, and it's often true that the more responsibility one takes, the easier things become.
"I worry about the same thing that happened to my dad happening to me," Sam says. "But I'm ahead of the curve in a way: the responsibility of being father led me to do therapy. Now I'm doing what friends I grew up with in the West Midlands are doing – paying the bills. Sometimes people need a reality check from the bubble they've built for themselves.”
How to Survive 47.2
1/ Give Yourself a Break
Burnout (AKA chronic stress) hinders your performance, as well as being a precursor to depression. What’s more, Harvard Business Review found that people who use up their annual leave have a greater chance of a promotion.
2/ Be a Positive Force
You can’t always force optimism. But multiple studies show that altruistic endeavours – whether volunteering, helping out a friend or adopting a dog – rewire our brains so positive thoughts come more naturally.
3/ Put Money in Perspective
Financial insecurity is undoubtedly stressful, but it’s easy to overstate money’s value. Your sleep quality is a stronger predictor of well-being than financial success, reports the National Centre for Social Research.
4/ Play to Your Strengths
You might not get talent spotted at Sunday league, but that doesn’t mean you’re past your prime. While power fades, your slow-twitch “endurance” muscles are less affected by ageing; a marathon PB is still on the cards.
5/ Be a Pack Animal
Marriage isn’t elemental to happiness – but maintaining close social bonds is. People with stronger relationships also have lower levels of inflammation, says Ohio State University, cutting their chances of heart disease.
6/ Create Something
Taking up an absorbing pastime – woodworking, painting, learning an instrument – has a natural anti-depressive effect. A study in Art Therapy journal found that crafting significantly reduces stress hormones within just 45 minutes.
7/ Pile on the Weights
It’s never too late to take your training seriously. Heavy-lifting newcomers in their later years put on muscle just as easily as lifelong athletes, says Frontiers in Physiology. It’s also the best way to offsets ageing’s physical effects.
Andrew, 48, is a corporate lawyer in the C-suite echelons with a wife and four kids. “I think the forties are a transitional time,” he says. “You begin to lose the vibrancy of youth, but you also become more more comfortable with who you are.” Still, he says, there's always more to learn. “Exercise is a really important thing, as is sorting out your relationship with alcohol. Also, ‘stuffocation’ is real. Learn to buy less stuff.”
One of his biggest learnings was from a management course he attended at Harvard where lecturers emphasised the importance of having an agenda in life, but especially outside of the nine-to-five. “It's trite to talk about work-life balance, but you have to make your personal life as much of a priority as your work, because you'll be more effective in both if you do. My work has sometimes come at the expense of my relationships and marriage – it's fine, but I don't think I've invested as much in them as I should have done. If you think you can be successful in your career while leaving your relationship to be sorted out when you retire… that's too late.”
Quiet After the Storm
A sense of mastery, developed over the course of a working life, can also be its own reward – and a more reliable one than success alone. Andy, 48 and married with two teenage sons, has risen high in the field of data architecture. He talks about “flow state”: total immersion in a task. “If I'm working on a significant technical problem – nothing to do with egos and people, purely about making machines do what you want them to – there can be an incredible experience of other-worldliness, an escape from time,” he says.
As a data architect, he also feels the 47.2 figure deserves scepticism. “The scientist in me questions it,” he adds. “It comes from the fact that [this is] the point in people's lives when they are typically carrying the most responsibility – in their job, in parenting. Some indices of happiness will probably be at their nadir at that moment, and others at their zenith. I'm more productive than I've ever been. My family life and financial stability are probably better than ever, too.”
In corporate honorifics, as in most things, it's true that the grass is often greener. In the world of work, says Andy, that realisation can be helpful: “The job above you isn't always better for you,” he says. “And that just shows the ludicrousness of the inbuilt dynamics of aspiration and the need to achieve.”
Those aspirations can disintegrate rapidly after a meeting with the Yeti which can, it must be said, happen more than once. Damion, 49, was a market researcher for years before jacking it in in his late thirties to return to what he once loved: cooking. A decade on, he faced a new set of questions.
"I definitely had the crisis at around 47.2, he says. "It was exacerbated by staying at home looking after my kids and being out of the loop. It came on quickly. I realised I wasn’t young anymore, and I could count the decades I had left: one, two, maybe three if I'm lucky. Certainly, it was the lowest point of my life. I always felt like I had tons to do and loads of time to do it in, and all of a sudden it was like, nope.” Yet, in another way, he says, this realisation was beneficial to him. “It focused me.”
As with Andrew, the upward slope of the U-shaped curve entailed a process of stripping out the bits of life that serve no purpose and finding activities which have an unchanging and trustable quality amid the transience of life. Few things can be as honest as baking bread and lifting weights, but the list of What Works could also include walking, reading, playing music and gardening – indeed, practically anything you saw your dad doing when you were a kid.
“I try to stay fit and eat healthily,” Damion says. “In my twenties I saw all that as a chore, but today I lift weights because it makes me feel good. In terms of my mental health it's been life-changing.” He’s also learnt to streamline his energy output: "Stop worrying about what other people think of you and don't dwell on the past. The more time you spend on regret, the more you beat yourself up and it stops you doing something good with the rest of your life. Also, get comfortable with saying ‘no’.”
It's an approach to robust living that Marcus Aurelius would have approved of. "Waste no more time arguing what a good man should be," the Roman emperor wrote in his Meditations. “Be one.”
The kind of insights one grasps in one's forties are often unsensational to the point of sounding like platitudes – be grateful for what you've got, don't sweat the small stuff, learn to let go. But clichés are clichés because they're true, and they're worth repeating precisely because they're so easy to overlook. The various crises that collect under the headline of 47.2 can range from the extreme to the mundane, but what follows them – from lifestyle pivots to spiritual awakenings – can emerge just as quietly, in the realm of those “unaroused emotions” Paul Dolan talks about.
So what else have our council of elders learned along the path upward and onward? David Baker recalls how in his twenties he resolved to work less after watching the tragic spectacle of an overburdened fortysomething boss burning out. He offers an aperçue from the Broadway star Andre de Shields: “The fastest way to get anywhere is slowly.”
Wise beyond his years, Sam finds consolation in the idea of his career as a field rather than a ladder; a terrain where, as he puts in, “You can experiment and potter about – you don't need to be going up in status the whole time.”
Regret is surely one of the greatest midlife bugbears, but the fear of having them can be crueller than the reality. “We continually make mistakes in life,” says David Baker, “but we develop resilience by bouncing back from them. Looking back on their early life, most people think, ‘What a jerk I was.’ Which probably means we're being jerks now, because 20 years hence we'll look back and think the same thing.” But don't waste time wondering what advice your older self might impart to the younger you. Instead, ask what your younger self would want your older self to be doing. Having more fun, probably.
I look back over the past five years of my life, since that precipitous crash in Berlin, and above all, I see that growing means learning, and learning is often painful. And one of the biggest mistakes we can make is to believe that we know all we need to know.
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