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The U-Shape of Happiness


3/5/2008 4:44:30 PM

There's a theory making the rounds among scholars these days that happiness is a U-shaped experience. It peaks in our youth and old age and virtually disappears during the middle years. One study, which analyzed data on 2 million people in 80 countries, found that this long trough of unhappiness occurs in both men and women, single and married people, the rich and poor and those raising children and those who aren't. In short, according to a pretty significant body of empirical data, if you’re over the age of 20 and under the age of 70, you might as well pack it in--you’re going to be sad whether you like it or not.

The problem I have with this theory—and at this point, it’s nothing more than that, despite all the data—is its underlying assumption. The evidence suggests that adults are naturally unhappy. However, we have no definitive explanation as to why that might be so or even if we are interpreting the evidence correctly. The emerging view is that middle age confronts (most of) us with an unpleasant reality: our dreams haven’t been realized and aren’t going to be. That undeniable fact causes us to slip into a deep funk … until we get so old we don’t care any more. There’s a certain logic to this notion, I suppose, but I don’t buy it. It assumes that, by middle age, our minds have shut down, our bodies have grown decrepit, and we have so many obligations and responsibilities that we can no longer chase our dreams. To me, that’s the equivalent of saying the U.S. Declaration of Independence is age delimited. In other words, you are guaranteed Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness, but only if you are not a middle-aged adult.

So what’s my explanation? I think a lot of people are reporting a middle age of unhappiness because they refuse to change or don’t think they can. The central feature of their life outside their family—the activity to which they devote a third or more of their day—is their work. And, sadly, for many of us, our work is enervating, dispiriting and demeaning. We are bullied by bad employers that:

  • describe us their key to success and then lay us off to get a bump in their share price;


  • argue they can’t afford a 50 cent increase in the minimum wage, yet routinely pay their CEOs millions of dollars a year;


  • beat their chests about the importance of healthy living, but promote supervisors who make us work on weekends, holidays and vacations; and


  • promise to respect our careers and treat us as cognitive beings only to recruit and manage us as carbon-based cogs.


  • We face all of these depressing aspects of our work and are convinced we can’t or simply won’t do anything about it. And, I believe we can and should.

  • First, we can because the dynamic of the workplace has changed. Today, employers are desperate to hire two kinds of talent: those who have hard to find skills (e.g., Web programmers, certain kinds of sales reps, engineers, nurses and pharmacists) and those who are peak performers (e.g., they not only excel in their own field, but they raise the performance of those around them). The organizations that have an unfair share of such employees will outperform their competitors, so if you have one or both of these characteristics, you can write your own ticket. There will be lots of employers trying to recruit you and, once hired, those employers will pay you better and do whatever they can to support your best work. Unlike in previous generations of workers, you will control the direction and content of your career, not the organizations that employ you.


  • Second, we should because doing so will change the dynamic of our life. Taking control of the direction and content of your career is the single best way to achieve happiness on-the-job. When you are working in a field that promotes your best work and for an employer that respects and supports your talent, you are engaged in one of humankind’s unique and most important challenges: the emancipation and expression of the champion within you. Each of us has the capacity to excel at work that is meaningful and satisfying to us. If we exercise that capacity, we give ourselves the opportunity to explore the unlimited dimensions of our gifted self, the naturally able person we are. That experience of continuously reaching for and achieving more of the excellence within us transforms the pursuit of Happiness from a promise to an outcome we can actually accomplish.


  • The middle years of life are undeniably filled with imposing challenges and heavy responsibilities. They become a wasteland of unhappiness, however, only if we let them. Our work is one of the central features of adulthood. If we direct our careers toward work that engages and fulfills us, therefore, we will infuse those years with a happiness that is every bit as great as that which we enjoy in our youth and old age. In effect, we will change happiness from a U-shaped to an o-shaped experience or one that continues on and on and on.

    Thanks for reading, Peter



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