After we turn 50, we look at many of our major life decisions in the rearview mirror – our beliefs about life, where we live, our career, the people around us, whether we have children and how we raised them, and so on. As we now look forward in our 50s or later, if we have a degree of success or fulfillment, we can start to feel some
space to relax and focus on our own happiness and wellbeing. The topic of life fulfillment is central to the book, The Happiness Curve: Why Life Gets Better After 50, by Jonathan Rauch. Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institute, the esteemed U.S. think tank, Rauch shares extensive data, interviews with neuroscientists, economists and psychologists, and personal stories of himself and other adults of various ages. Quoting research and academic studies, Rauch demonstrates that happiness in life is U-shaped. He maps out that for most people, life satisfaction starts high as a very young child then falls in our 20s and 30’s, hits a rough time in our 40’s, and rises again in our 50s through 80s. The old saying “life begins at 40” actually looks more like 50s today.
According to Rauch, age works in favor of life happiness, and the midlife slump is a natural transition. It’s not the crisis in mid-life that causes people to make reactionary decisions like buying expensive cars and embarking on uncharacteristic relationships. Instead, it is a reaction to the passing of time. Of course, not everyone experiences
increased happiness in their 50s with the occurrences of divorce, unemployment, illness and other life difficulties. Aside from these individual life occurrences, the U-curve theory still holds. Rauch explains that often the 20s are characterized by having optimist and idealistic attitudes about ourselves and what we can do in the world. We are excited about making an impact in our chosen area of interest. Then, as we follow our path into our 30s and 40s, our ambition is unleashed and we accomplish some things. Yet, we realize that we don’t really understand how things happen in life, and often think we could affect more change.
During our 40’s, those who are achieving goals and have achieved some life satisfaction may start to experience discontent, feeling that life is harder than they expected and they aren’t as fulfilled as they had hoped to be. This attitude can go on for years, but eventually tapers off as stress and personal questioning lifts with time.
Yes, there are researchers that question Rauch’s conclusions and disagree with the happiness hypothesis. They report that people with happier demeanors stay happy and find fewer things to reduce their unhappiness, while people with unhappy demeanors find more to be unhappy about. This is a life filter many choose to view the world through based on their beliefs and past influences.
It’s true that a period of questioning and often doubt regarding life decisions happen to many adults in their 40s, often depending on how well they are doing in life. At some point restlessness and discontent does settle down, and there is an acceptance of the self and what is possible for the future. These brand new outlooks bring
excitement and optimism, although fear of change can play a role. My own experience is a demonstration of Rauch’s happiness theory. After university, my own business career progressed due to ambition, a strong work ethic, long working hours, and a desire to achieve results and gain recognition. With some bumps, I kept moving forward until I faced discrimination and office. This led me to leave corporate America and work with smaller companies that offered flexibility and meritocracy. This also became my period of discontent as I searched for more meaning and balance between career, relationships and health. As I entered my 50s, my attitudes and values changed with time spent in introspection and exploration of my purpose. With new clarity and ambition, I chose a new direction, moved cross-country and settled into a more fulfilling life. More importantly, I am happy with my choices and enjoy the freedom that comes with being the master of my life.
Rauch adds that values change we get older. Older people focus less on negative information, feel less stress and regret, pay less attention to competition, and are better able to regulate their emotions. Many adults over 50 value peace of mind, wellbeing and wise use of their energy as important to their quality of life. At the same time, there are older people who feel the urge to reinvent themselves and explore new opportunities in work, learning, relationships, travel or retirement. They may be ready to simplify their life and focus on time with family and grandchildren, hobbies and volunteering. With wisdom and experience, adults focus less on comparing themselves to others
and gaining approval, and more on what is right for their lives. They know their worth. As important, many adults over 50 feel gratitude for who they are and what they have, and feel less despair and regret over what they lack. Image what life would be like if we had this wisdom and values earlier in life!
So what are some of the ways you can increase your own happiness and fulfillment after 50?
1) Choose to be hopeful and view life and the world as a positive place.
Are you a person who sees the glass as half full or half empty? We all have filters
such as beliefs and feelings that we use to interpret the world through. For example,
some people see the world as a safe place, that people are good and trustworthy,
and that life is getting better. On the other hand, others view the world as dangerous,
people are not to be trusted, and life is getting worse. The outlook we choose is
individual and we spend great effort and time proving ourselves right with our daily
thoughts and actions.
So how can you move toward seeing the world as positive and supportive? Simply, in this moment make a decision to believe that the world is abundant and that
everything you want is coming your way. Then commit to it and believe it beyond a
doubt. That’s it. However, you need to reinforce your decision by choosing it
everyday and letting go of all thoughts to the contrary that will likely come along
when. Recognize these thoughts as your old way of thinking and let them go.
There is scientific evidence to show that people who hold a positive mindset and feel
gratitude regularly have more results in life. They seem to draw other people and
resources to them that match the mindset. And the reverse is similarly true.
Avoid influences – news, people, work, activities and environments – that can sway
you to the other side of your new mindset. You decide what belongs in your life and
what doesn’t. You’ll be happiest making decisions and keeping your promises to
2) Know who you really are and choose to love yourself as you are without any
need to change.
What does it mean to know who you really are? It means that you know your
strengths and potential, you accept them, and you actively engage with them on a
daily basis. It also means that you know and accept yourself with all your gifts,
strengths, weaknesses and imperfections. All these parts of you make up your whole.
Know you are complete and lovable, and be kind to yourself.
One action you can take is to choose to love yourself right now as you are. Stand in
front of a mirror and say out loud, “I love you (add your name)”. In doing this, you
validate and love yourself replacing the need or dependence on others to love you.
This exercise was a breakthrough for me. When I was able to say, “I love you Susan”
without a doubt or clinch, I felt my own self-love, personal power and joy. It was life
3) Forgive yourself for any “mistakes” you believe you’ve made.
We all have “mistakes” we are aware of and may even feel some blame and shame.
But are these really mistakes? What if there is no such thing as mistakes? The
choices we made are usually our attempt to do the best we can with the
circumstances at that time. Instead of mistakes, they can be seen as learning lessons
and feedback to us regarding our choices. Many times these situations create
openings for new possibilities that bring better opportunities and results than we had
A United Airlines pilot in the security line ahead of me at the airport once shared with
me that during 80% or more of the flight the plane was off course. Pilots and planes
are constantly course correcting to get back onto the charted flight path. Airlines and
pilots accept this as a fact without worry and calmly adjust as needed. It’s all in a
Most life choices are not permanent outside of divorce, injury or death. Even these
outcomes, they can be great teachers on how you want your life to be or not be.
Give yourself a break and allow yourself to be human and make less than ideal
choices sometimes. You will feel a lot less stress and more happiness.
4) Choose to be happy no matter what.
As I stated earlier, in each moment we have the ability to change what we think and
feel. Despite this ability, most of us choose to let fear direct or influence our
thoughts. According to the National Science Foundation, an average person has
about 12,000 to 60,000 thoughts per day. Of those, 80% are negative and 95% are
repetitive thoughts. If we repeat the negative thoughts, we think negative thoughts
much more than we think positive thoughts.
An action you can take is choose to be happy no matter what the circumstances are
in your life. These come and go, but your attitude can be constant when you manage
it. The majority of your thoughts and feelings are based on your past and our patterns
of thinking. As you become aware, you will notice repetitive negative thoughts you
may have experienced before that continually draw you away from your happiness,
positive mood and energy. Since you are the master of your mind and life, you get to
decide what to think and feel in every single minute.
Ten years ago while traveling, I lost the sight in my left eye. The doctors in the
emergency room were not able to determine the cause. I made a choice in that
moment that I would enjoy my life with or without my full sight. After I did this, I
immediately relaxed, let go of the stress and saw myself as healthy and whole. By
continuing this vision for myself over time, my sight eventually returned and I felt even
more empowered in my other large and small life choices.
Susan Rosenthal - Modern Aging
Susan is Co-CEO and Chief Operations Officer of Modern Aging. She is a businesswoman, author and coach with a mission to build global communities, eliminate stereotypes and inspire people to live authentically and fulfilled.
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