Studies of human happiness might be flawed by their reliance on reported levels of feel-good vibes, rather than any objectively derived metric, but when a pattern repeats itself in culture after culture, from Poland to Peru, you can probably reckon there’s something in it.
That pattern is the ‘U curve’, first identified by economists David Blanchflower and Andrew Oswald and replicated dozens of times since. If you divide adult human life into three broad swathes – young, middle-aged, old – the studies show that reported happiness is high at the two extremes and slumps in the middle.
Twenty-somethings and 70-somethings are doing OK; their lives are giving them satisfaction. Around the 40 to 50 mark, though, people are in the mire and the slough at the bottom of that U.
Imagine, for a minute, that we applied to those three stages of adult life the same terms we use for the stages of car ownership. Young adulthood is ‘new’, with all its shine and its body-integrity and its sweetly-revving engine.
At the other end of the age range, adulthood is ‘vintage’ – more about a recognition of uniqueness of style and an appreciation of quirks than about mundane measures of efficiency or speed.
And in between? The epithet is ‘used’ – with all the beaten-down compromise and wary uncertainty that implies.