Recently, I wrote 7 Money Goals to Hit by 45. Check it out if you haven’t read it yet. You can see if you’re a successful adult as you approach midlife. The comments are really interesting, though. Several older readers commented that they are happier now in their 50s, 60s, and beyond. I vaguely recall hearing something about this phenomenon on NPR. Ah, yes. Our readers are experiencing “The Happiness Curve.” It seems most people become happier as they age. Seriously? I’ll be happier as I get older? Sign me up.
Have you heard of the Happiness Curve? Basically, most of us start off with a carefree childhood, become less happy as we accumulate more responsibilities, bottom out in midlife, and begin to come out of the funk in our 50s. Life gets better from there. Here is the curve.
Of course, not everyone goes through the same thing in life. We all have our ups and downs, but the curve looks like this once you filter out the noise and aggregate the data.
To be clear, the happiness we’re talking about here is life satisfaction. It is how you feel about life in general. We’re not talking about the short-term happiness of finding a $20 bill on the sidewalk. That will give you a little spike, but it doesn’t last.
The Happiness Curve
There is a whole book on this. Jonathan Rauch’s The Happiness Curve. I got it on Kindle (via the library) and speed read through the book so I can write this follow up. The book was a bit tedious for me because I disagree with some of their findings. Here is my CliffsNotes version.
- Most of us have a very high expectation of ourselves when we were young. As we hit our 40s, we realize that we aren’t going to change the world after all. This is a bitter pill to swallow.
- Even if you’re successful, there will be some people who are more successful. Comparing yourself to others will make you feel down about yourself. Also, successes make you hunger for more so you keep pushing yourself.
- Midlife is usually the most stressful time in your life. You’ve got a litany of big problems to worry about – career, kids, aging parents, marriage, money, friendship, health, and more. It’s a big change from the relatively low-stress 20s.
- Knowing about this U curve shape isn’t going to help you feel better or improve anything. Struggling against the discontentment will just make you feel worse.
- People become happier in their 50s because they are more accepting. We realize how lucky we are, struggle less, and embrace our lives. The stress also let up as the kids grow up, careers peter out, and we become more financially secure. Apparently, older people are better at not caring what other people think as well.
- The way through the Happiness Curve is to be patient and stay the course. You’ll become happier as you age.
The last point is what I disagree with the most. I strongly prefer action to inaction. And it worked out very well for me. However, I realize that I could be an outlier. Most people might be better off to just wait it out.
Anyway, the book isn’t bad. It just seems like it could be a lot shorter. (I was in a hurry to get through it.) It’s a good read if you’re in the middle age funk. Check it out from your library or splurge on Amazon with my link – The Happiness Curve: Why Life Gets Better After 50.
My Happiness Curve
This chart should really be called The Life Satisfaction Curve. But, that’s not as catchy. Oh well, let’s go with happiness. Here is my happiness curve.
- Childhood: I had a happy childhood. I had 2 brothers and lots of cousins in Thailand. Kids were able to be kids in those days and it was great.
- Teenage years: We immigrated to the US when I was 12. High school was tough for me because I didn’t really fit in. We moved a lot so I didn’t have any close friends. College was a lot better, but the engineering classes were overwhelming. The engineering students were stressed out all the time. My happiness level dipped in my teenage years quite a bit.
- 20s: Yes! I finally started making a good income and I had lots of friends. My early 20s was great and I had a ton of fun.
- Early 30s: My 30s was okay. By this time, I was married, owned a house, and worked in a stressful job. That’s life as an adult.
- Late 30s: I became very dissatisfied with my engineering career. It wasn’t a good fit anymore and my happiness level cratered. This somewhat coincides with our son’s birth. I love RB40Jr, but a baby is a huge stressor.
Jonathan Rauch recommends being patient and waiting it out. That’s what he did and he became happier in his 50s. However, I chose to make a drastic change and retired early when I was 38. My happiness level improved immediately and it kept going up. My corporate job was the biggest stressor in my life. Getting out of the rat race made me a much happier guy.
- 40s: I’m turning 45 soon so I’m just halfway through my 40s. There is a small dip in happiness level right now because we’re dealing with a big adversity at home. We’re taking some action to remedy the situation so I think I’ll get back to 8 soon. Life is still pretty good even with this problem.
- Forecast in 50s: The 50s looks rosy to me. We’ll have less stress as RB40Jr moves out and Mrs. RB40 retires. I plan to travel more and reconnect with friends. It should be a good period for us as long as we’re healthy. I’m forecasting a 9 as I approach my 60th. That’s a long way off so, who knows?
Joe vs the US
Here is my happiness curve vs the average American’s happiness curve. Most countries have similar u shape curve, but there are subtle differences. The whole curve is higher for Norway, for example. We’ll just focus on the US because we live here.
My happiness level dipped below the u curve a couple of times, but I’m out of trough now in my 40s. While most people my age are struggling through the midlife discontent, I am done with it. My life satisfaction level is very high and I’m positive it will keep increasing. If my forecast comes true, then I’ll spend a lot more years being happier than the average American. Here is where calculus would come in handy. All I remember is that you can use calculus to figure out the area under the curves. I’m not great at math anymore, but my eyeballs tell me that I’ll come out way ahead.
This is where Jonathan Rauch and all the researchers got it wrong. I don’t think you have to be patient and just wait for things to get better? No way. There must be some ways to hack the happiness curve. Here is how I did it.
Hacking the Happiness Curve
My regular readers see this coming from a mile away. The answer is FIRE, of course. That’s financial independence & retire early for the uninitiated. Here are the reasons why FIRE is the key to hacking the happiness curve.
Ignoring the Joneses
One crucial step in the FIRE movement is to ignore the Joneses. That’s the only way to save a significant percentage of your income. Regular people have a really hard time with this. When they see the Joneses driving around in a new Tesla, they feel the urge to upgrade their vehicle too. It’s a vicious cycle. However, I learned how to ignore the Joneses years ago. I had a bigger goal to shoot for, early retirement.
This is our first edge over the regular people. We had to figure out how to stop comparing ourselves to others financially. We boosted our saving rate so we could invest more. It’s pretty much impossible to achieve financial independence if you can’t ignore the Joneses. There is always someone in the neighborhood that lives a flashier lifestyle than you do.
Comparing yourself to others professionally
Finance isn’t the only component, though. Middle age folks make themselves dissatisfied with life by comparing their professional accomplishment with others. I’m sure you did that at some point too. I used to look around at work and envy the more accomplished engineers. They were doing innovative work, getting promotions, collecting awards, and spend 80 hours/week at the office. The corporate environment is designed to do this. They want the employees to compete with each other and work harder. You’re supposed to feel bad if you’re not the superstar. Of course, there are only a few superstars so most of us fall into the envious category.
Once I quit the corporate environment, all of that went away. Now, I’m not jealous of my former coworkers at all. I live an awesome life even if I don’t make as much money. Early retirement helped me take a step back and stop pursuing the next mission. I’m free from ambition.
Life in the 40s is like living in a castle under siege. You’re under attack from all directions and they grind you down. For me, the biggest source of stress was my engineering career. Once I achieved financial independence and retired early, all the career related stress disappeared. I still had other problems, but I had more time to deal with them.
- Health – My physical and mental health improved significantly since I retired. The stressful and sedentary corporate lifestyle screwed up my health.
- Kid – I was able to spend a lot more time with RB40Jr after retirement. Being a stay-at-home dad has been a great experience for both of us.
- Marriage – My marriage improved. I have time to cook, do household chores, and run errands. Our relationship is better because I’m not stressed out all the time.
- Money – We’re doing well financially. I saved and invested in my youth and it is paying off now.
- Aging parents – This is the tough one. Some of my friends are going through a similar challenge in their 40s. At least I have time to help my mom. It would have been a lot more difficult if I was still working full-time.
I estimate that 80% of my stress disappeared after I retired. Early retirement has been really good for me.
Develop a thick skin
One reason why older people are happier is because they don’t care what other people say about them. I think running a blog really helped me develop a thicker skin. People can be vicious when they are anonymous. I’ve seen all kind of nasty comments and I learned how to let it roll off my back. Now, I don’t even care what people say about me. Blogging is a short cut to develop that attitude. I just focus on doing my own thing and ignore what other people say.
Starting a blog is a great way to build your brand and generate some extra income. You can see my tutorial – How to Start A Blog and Why You Should. Check it out if you’re thinking about blogging.
At some point, people start to feel thankful for what they have and focus less on others. This feeling of gratitude comes with age, apparently. However, there is another way to be grateful when you’re young.
See the pit of doom here? I was in a bad place in my late 30s. I’m a happy go lucky guy and being in the pit of doom runs contrary to my natural state. Once I got out of the pit of doom, I feel very grateful. Every day that’s better than that is a good day. My life is full of good days now. I’m very thankful for everything I have.
I think most people never had to descend into the pit of doom for an extended period of time. Their lives are more stable. It’s hard to feel grateful if you don’t have a difficult personal experience for comparison.
Also, I think I’m very lucky to climb out of the pit of doom relatively quickly. Some people who descended into darkness had a really difficult time escaping it. They take up drinking and other vices. Those bad habits will make it much harder to escape the pit of doom. I had lots of things in my favor to help me improve. The FIRE community, my frugal lifestyle, my family, and friends are just some of the things I’m grateful for.
Lastly, FIRE gave me autonomy. I love my life because I have the freedom to do what I want. I don’t have to listen to a manager or tell an adult what to do. That suits my temperament perfectly. Who needs the aggravation?
One way to become happier is to align your life with your values. That can be difficult when most of your life revolves around a job. Now that I no longer have a job, I have the autonomy to live the way I want. Autonomy is really the best thing about FIRE.
Can it be replicate?
So that’s my hack to shorten your midlife discontentment. Wouldn’t you like to have a nicer happiness curve? Why be stressed and discontented for so long? Let’s get it over with ASAP. However, I am just one data point. I wonder if other people can improve their happiness in their 40s instead of 50s. Someone else who went through a similar experience might react differently. After all, everyone is a unique individual. Let me know what you think.
What about you? Where are you on this curve? Are you not quite satisfied with life even with all you’ve accomplished? I’d love to hear from some early retirees in their 40s.
Photo by Tetbirt Salim