According to studies, I’m in a stare down with the unhappiest time of my life.
Released this month by the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER), a report stated that the age at which we’re most unhappy is 47. I’m 46.
The reasons point to the responsibilities one has at this age. You have a mortgage and bills, not to mention tasks related to your job, kids, and volunteer positions at your church or children’s school. On top of that, it really starts to sink in that your body just isn’t what it used to be.
“You’re past your prime, you’re past your peak. You’re on the downward slope of the physical side of things now,” said Dean Burnett, a British neuroscientist and author of ‘The Happy Brain: The Science of Where Happiness Comes From and Why.’
It’s the worst of both worlds, he added. People don’t have the fun of youth or the security of old age.
A brief search online speaks to the U-shaped curve mentioned in the NBER report written by David Blanchflower, an economics professor at Dartmouth College in Hanover, NH. “Unhappiness is hill-shaped in age,” he wrote. “There is an unhappiness curve.”
Google that term “unhappiness curve” and get ready for a load of articles and charts that speak to what is now being seen as an age of American despair. That New York Times column by Ross Douthat explores the causes and if they are more political, economic, or spiritual. People want to be happy and yet are having a tough time finding it. An impossibly tough time, it seems.
Writer David French addressed this recently in a piece about the need for community. He told the story of a gathering he’d recently attended with other Christians and a conversation with one who owns a business. That man shared how, in asking his employees about their holiday plans, he learned that for too many of them it was just another day. They didn’t have plans at all because they had no one with whom to share them.
The crisis of despair, French posited, is actually a crisis of community. The title of his essay – “It Is Not Good That the Man Should Be Alone” – points to the creation in Genesis. And while this verse is typically associated with marriage, it also speaks to the need for being with others. That community is further enhanced when it involves a word from the Lord (Heb. 10:25), the One who created us for relationship not only with Him, but each other.
In researching this topic I came across other studies that picked out different ages, but 47 feels right to me. Overall very happy with where I am in life, there are still regrets. I’ve let time slip away and haven’t kept up with friendships. I worry about making the right decisions to provide for my family. I’m well aware that to win a basketball game against my (what seems now) obnoxiously athletic 13-year-old son, it’s crucial to dominate in the post and not dare play close defense on the perimeter. The quickness from my younger years, not to mention cartilage in my knees, just isn’t there anymore.
There’s a saying I’ve been trying to apply more lately. I’m not sure if I heard it somewhere or not, but it goes this way: “Do the things today that, years from now, you’ll wish you had done.”
Like anything else, there needs to be balance. Today, it would be great to eat nothing but pizza while binge-watching Lonesome Dove. But I can’t do that. I have family responsibilities and deadlines, lots of deadlines.
The Christian knows there’s a difference between happiness and joy. The former can be fleeting while the latter is a fruit of the spirit. It has a way of staying with you despite your circumstances. One way that joy is developed is through community. The early church in Acts 2 showed us what this looks like.
I’m as guilty as anyone at failing in this. Four kids, plus various work and volunteer responsibilities keep my wife and me busy. But there’s a cost to sacrificing – even unintentionally – the community we have through Christ. And while life may still push down on your happiness meter, even in your 40s, there’s still a reason to have joy.
Scott Barkley serves as editor of The Christian Index.