With time to kill at various airport newstands this week, my eye was drawn to the current Economist lead story about what they've tagged "the U-bend of happiness" -- the fact, noticed by economists only since the 1990s, that happiness drops around middle age and then picks up as people age. The idea of a mid-life crisis is conventional, but not the second half of this concept, which is that post-middle age, people get much happier again, and are in some ways more content at 70 than they were in the bloom of youth.
Since I'm turning the big 4-0 next week, I admittedly studied this article and its graphs with an even keener eye, looking for that low spot on the graph (age 46 globally, more like 50 to 53 for Americans) where statistically, happiness reaches its nadir and then prepares to rise again.
Why should older people be happier? Not necessarily -- as I would have imagined -- just because they're past typical mid-life challenges like raising cranky teenagers or dealing with particularly demanding jobs or the lack of a job, for example. Even when researchers controlled for things like unemployment and children, the U-bend was noted. It seems to have just as much to do with internal as external circumstances. In other words, the happiness of age seems to be a state of mind: a deepening appreciation of the present moment (perhaps), or declining ambition and increasing acceptance of life as it is (perhaps again). The article quotes William James, the psychologist and brother of author Henry James, as saying, "“How pleasant is the day when we give up striving to be young—or slender.”
Is the day also more pleasant when we give up being extraordinarily famous, renowned, or well-compensated writers?
Back home now and still thinking about faculty I met at my Antioch MFA residency as well as authors I've met throughout this year, I can't help applying the U-bend to the writing life, wondering if there is something to be said for a mild decline of ambition -- at least the commercial kind -- and a reckoning with the fact that most of us will remain obscure. What a relief it is, frankly, to understand how the publishing world works and that it is not designed to provide us with either long-lasting riches or any kind of security. Liberated from that misconception, we can reapply ourselves to what matters: the writing itself.
At Antioch, there are instructors whose books have sold a half-million copies teaching alongside instructors whose books have sold (I'm guessing here) in the low-thousands or even hundreds. There are instructors and visiting guests with immediate name recognition and ones without. There are people who sold a book very recently and ones who have been unpublished and out of print for quite some time. And yet, we all talk about what books we're reading now, what craft issue we're puzzling over, or what ideas in general are obsessing us lately; we all talk feverishly about literature and the writing life, leaving aside (usually) those burning questions about royalties and copies sold, which are bound to make anyone anxious.
I'm referring to Antioch because that's where I spent the last week and had access to hundreds of writers in a small space, sharing thoughts and exhibiting their joy or their neuroses. But apply this to any other group of writers you know, or all the writers in Alaska, and the thought -- or the question -- remains the same.
Have more (certainly not all) writers in their 50s, 60s, and 70s and older made peace with their labors and where they stand in the world? Are they free at last from the unrealistic aspirations and at least some of the personal agonies? Are you?
I apply this also to authors who seem successful by any standard. My favorite literary example is Philip Roth, who has been publishing for 51 years and recently celebrated his 31st book publication. Roth seemed to go through an exceptionally rocky middle age, and was written off by many of his peers, who did not shrink from writing scathing reviews of his books. But something happened in the last fifteen years or so, resulting in a second wave of productivity -- a new novel nearly every year -- and acclaim, including a 1997 Pulitzer for American Pastoral. The day Roth wins the Nobel, and I'm sure he will, I plan to raise my glass, not only to the man and his many works (my favorites include The Ghost Writer and The Plot Against America) but to what he represents: enduring success of the more meaningful kind, and hopefully some measure of happiness, on the right side of that U-bend.