Midway Upon the Journey of Our Life...

“Midway upon the journey of our life / I found myself within a forest dark / For the straightforward pathway had been lost.”

The Divine Comedy, Dante Alighieri

Do you remember when you were little, thinking “I can’t wait ‘til I grow up, when I can do whatever I like?”

When we are young, we all dream of doing something fantastical and exciting with our lives. Hairdressing, groin surgery or unicorn farming, the possibilities seemed endless. Then, if we were lucky, we had parents who encouraged us to try out for the school production, the sports team or the student council. “You can do it,” they promised, with a lick of hard work and a dash of charisma, the promised land awaited- success, fulfilment and happiness would veritably gush forth.

‘Zero’ birthdays are exhilarating events. My son recently turned ten, and the pride of his first shiny decade has given him a new swagger. I vaguely remember turning 20 some years ago, and that too, was a joyous occasion, back before a hangover became a crippling, hair-aching, tragedy. The thirties dawned with dirty nappies and a couple of years of sleep deprivation as my children arrived in the world.

I can’t say I remember very much of The Big Three-Oh. It might possibly never have happened at all, lost in the chaos of being covered in applesauce, clapping handies, and scraping mushy rusks out of the seatbelt holes. I do remember renewing my passport at that time, in preparation for the move to China, and sobbing in the photo booth when the strip of mugshot pictures of a middle-aged woman with long-haul undereye bags came out of the little slot. Looking back, that may have been the beginning of what has become commonly known as “The Mid-Life Crisis.”

Coined in 1957 by Elliott Jacques at the British Psycho-Analytical Society, the term refers to the slump in happiness experienced by some in their mid-thirties.

Now, it’s the funniest thing; 1980 was only 20 years ago, and yet, to use a vulgar word in our culture, it is also 40 years ago, by the calendar. That’s right, 40. And with the dawn of 2021, so too shall I begin a new decade, with another zero birthday to add to the collection. Given the precocious onset of my midlife slide down the happiness curve, I thought it would be best to prepare myself this time, for what is to come.

Jacques studied hundreds of artists, who manifested symptoms more observably, due to the intensity of their natures. Dante, Paul Gaugin, Mozart, Raphael, Rossini, Bach and Shakespeare are commonly cited as examples of great artists who dropped the ball or jumped upwards and out of the playing field at mid-life.

General feelings of disaffection, “religious awakenings, promiscuity, a sudden inability to enjoy life, “hypochondriacal concern over health and appearance,” and “compulsive attempts” to remain young,” characterized this dark night of the soul. Though highly successful in their fields, they were all dogged by a sense of inadequacy.

The idea left the audience of the Psycho-Analytical Society speechless.

Jacques published the theory 8 years later in 1965, in an article entitled “Death and the Mid-Life Crisis,” and it caught fire. The leap in life expectancy worldwide caused a shift in perspective on what was considered to be a happy life. Choices made in the babe-like innocence of early adulthood could, and should be questioned as the human species aged longer and slower. It became feasible to make life changing decisions in the third and fourth decades of life, as there was as much and again of this life to contemplate after the mid-life slump.

In the 19th century, for example, life expectancy globally was 31. Even at extreme old age, one would hardly have the time for a crisis. Mortality was there to quell the angst when it came knocking. In the freshly minted 21st Century, however, global life expectancy is 72, according to the W.H.O. We have oodles of time to look down the road ahead and ponder that path which we have chosen. Achieving goals, no matter how audacious, may just bring a sniff of contentment, a momentary high. An ironic side of the mid-life slump is that it manifests itself as forcefully in those who are high achievers as in those who may not have attained the goal of running Unanimous Unicorn Farms Ltd., or whatever other ambition may have thus far motivated them.

The arrival fallacy, a term coined by Tal Ben Shahar, Harvard Lecturer and the founder of The Wholebeing Institute, describes this sensation of ceaseless striving. “Once we make it, once we attain our goal or reach our destination, we will reach lasting happiness,” says Ben Shahar, smiling woefully. But inevitably, when the joy of the moment has worn off, we are once again making a running leap back on the hedonic treadmill towards the next big goal- the M.A., the new car, the iPhone 5678 with three million camera lenses and a built-in nail clippers.

This restless quest for self-actualization has been defined by Jung as individuation and is a natural party of human development, a longing to exist consciously as a human being in the world. Unfortunately, between the capitalist ideology, changing sociocultural norms and the cult of materialism, values adopted at earlier life stages may appear skewed, or even stagnant when viewed from the lofty perch of mid-life hindsight. Or worse again, the goals achieved may not have come up trumps with the promised “happily ever after” ending. Then what?

Then, for some misfortunate souls, a period of festering in ennui ensues. Jonathan Rauch identified this journey through the dark forest in his book, The Happiness Curve, (2018), as “self-eating spiral of discontent.” The good news is that the slump is just that, and the happiness curve itself is U-shaped. What goes down, must come up!

Numerous studies have shown that the happiness curve, which careens downwards in the thirties, creeps steadily upwards once more after a decade or two of sleepless nights, hostage style negotiations over who got the larger cookie or possession of the remote control and other everyday calamities. We confront mortality in the form of aging parents. Some have to cope with grief for the first time, and unfamiliar with its ferocity, even the strongest of us can bend and break. Our own crow’s feet become a perma-feature. We don’t look directly at what the photo-booth coughs out anymore.

And through all of this, we begin to feel once again at peace. Maybe not the superstar, uber-famous, envy-inducing kind of peace that seemed to be there for the taking at the dawn of our 20’s. But a piece of peace nonetheless, and as we get older, we learn to take it while it’s going.

The secret, say the experts, is not to ‘find happiness’ per se, but to increase our sense of wellbeing. People are experiencing more anxiety than ever. In 2017, it was named as the most prevalent mental health and neurodevelopmental disorder worldwide. If even The Happiness Curve author Rauch thought he was “a loser” during his mid-life dalliance with despondency, what are the rest of us to do?

Exercise, acts of altruism and expressing gratitude seem to be the way forwards. Ben Shahar, has found that practicing one or all of these methods measurably increases the feeling of wellbeing. Exercising for 40 mins a day can make you feel happier, more successful, it can even make your immune system stronger. Helping others in need necessarily makes us more mindful of all that we dohave. Saying Thank you, in a heartfelt way, once a day, can make another person smile. It all adds up. Quite simply, it makes us nicer people to be around.

And so, armed with this knowledge, I prepare to be blasted off the high end of the happiness curve any day now, a little more mindful of the mental carrots I dangle before myself in the misguided search for pleasure in life. Happiness, like birthdays, may not come every day. But it’s all subjective anyway. Mindset is our own to make. In the Forest Dark, the leaves like ladies fingers whisper, “Wait a while, enjoy the walk.”

First Published: The Nanjinger, 14th October, 2020

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