"The Happiness U-Curve," Religion News Service graphic by Tiffany McCallen.

“The Happiness U-Curve,” Religion News Service graphic by Tiffany McCallen.


 This image is available for web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

(RNS) I just learned about the U-curve — the basic psychological insight that most people get happier around age 50.

Judging from a variety of survey data from multiple cultures, people tend to be happy in their 20s and early 30s before hitting a less-happy trough in their late 30s and 40s, then returning to happiness in their early 50s. The line graph for this looks like a “U” stretched out on both sides, or, if you prefer, like a smile.

The predominant explanation seems to be that when we are young, we are ambitious and optimistic.

We feel good physically and have our lives in front of us. By our 40s, we start to worry about things we have not done yet, stymied by the realization “this” might be all there is. But by our early 50s we move on toward thinking “this” is not so bad after all.

At 54, I’ll admit my own experience seems to fit the pattern. I have less energy, my career has likely plateaued, and my parents will probably soon need closer care, but I still feel more satisfied. Is this because I got enough of what I desired? Or is it, perhaps, because I stopped desiring so much, or at least started desiring different things?

I teach comparative religion, so I know who spoke most clearly about satisfaction and desire. The Buddha taught these Four Noble Truths:

  • Life is dissatisfying.
  • Dissatisfaction is caused by desire.
  • Dissatisfaction will end only when the desires are extinguished.
  • The way to extinguish desires is to follow spiritual discipline. (For the Buddha, spiritual discipline meant the Eightfold Path).

I’m not kidding anybody: I have not extinguished all my desires. And I do not have much spiritual discipline. But maybe life is adjusting my desires whether I asked for it or not.

What really changes as we hit 50? Perhaps most importantly, our time horizon changes. I’m not sure when my career will end, but I know I can see it from here. This means my goals change. I want to do something significant, but I’m realistic, circumspect, about what that might be. I cannot pretend the possibilities are infinite; the constraints are obvious, with “time” at the top of the list.

A Buddhist statue on display at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Mo. Religion News Service photo by Sally Morrow

A Buddhist statue on display at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Mo. Religion News Service photo by Sally Morrow


 This image is available for web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

My definition of “significance” has changed too. I have a clearer sense of what matters to me, of whose opinions matter to me.

Finite time constraints and a clearer sense of values combine to offer the greatest gift of all: an improved ability to live in the present. At a certain age, you realize that clinging to past mistakes is futile. Even better, you stop yearning for some ideal future because experience teaches us the ideal is probably not forthcoming.

When I am with my grown children now, I think of that time as perfect by itself, not as a means of getting to something else. God willing, some future time with my grandkids will be even more perfect. (I realize “more perfect” is redundant, but I’m told it still applies to grandkids.)

Mindfulness — living in the present — is part of the discipline the Buddha taught in the Eightfold Path: right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness and right concentration. As a younger man I didn’t want to hear it because I had places to go. I yearned for something else.

I have not become a Buddhist. I am too attached to several of my desires, unwilling to let them go. But I see the structure of life bending me toward this wisdom and applying some form of this discipline to me whether I like it or not. Considerable evidence suggests similar changes happen across cultures; the U-curve applies in a variety of settings.

I’m clear-headed about the benefits of living in a society where people do yearn and strive, where cars get safer, food gets cheaper and information gets more widely available. People who eschew “grasping” still reap the benefits of other people’s materialistic ambitions.

Arthur E. Farnsley II is professor of religious studies at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis and author of "Flea Market Jesus. “ Photo courtesy of Arthur E. Farnsley

Arthur E. Farnsley II is professor of religious studies at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis and author of “Flea Market Jesus. “ Photo courtesy of Arthur E. Farnsley


 This image is available for web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

I’m also clear-headed enough to know that I am privileged, that a 54-year old me who has plenty is in no position to tell younger people to stop letting their desires rule them.

I can’t even make this a sermon about how I wish I’d learned all this earlier because, honestly, I knew about spiritual discipline and consciously rejected it. Let’s face it: Grasping is bound up with energy and energy is a source of joy, even if dissatisfaction is inevitable.

But if I cannot preach mindfulness and extinguishing desires to anyone, I can still recognize the relationship between satisfaction and desires when I see it. As I learned about the U-curve, I realized that those of us who live long enough and enjoy good health see our lives bent back toward the place where, maybe, we should have started long ago.

(Arthur E. Farnsley II is professor of religious studies at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis and author of  “Flea Market Jesus.”)

YS/MG END FARNSLEY

12 Comments

  1. A737,

    According to this ‘timeline of religion’ —

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Timeline_of_religion

    — Buddhism appeared about 300 years before Jesus and Christianity. If there is ‘one God’, as Christianity teaches, that ‘one God’ must have created this religion.

    So, it must have God’s approval whether anyone likes it or not.

    Maybe this Bible verse explains it all —

    Man’s ways are of the Lord, so how can we understand our own ways?…….Proverbs 20:24

  2. samuel Johnston

    Hi Author,
    I could not have said it better myself, and I am 70. My old philosophy professor prefaced many of his remarks this way: “Why just the other day I realized something. Of course, I should have realized it many years ago – I had all the facts.”

  3. Billysees, just because it existed didn’t mean God approved. He “allowed” it is better way to think of it.
    Christianity is about choosing to love God. It being perfect.
    When your child disobey you consequences follow and you will still love them even though they may choose to hate you.
    Evil forces us to make decisions daily to chose to love or chose not to love God.

    • winny,

      ” …just because it existed didn’t mean God approved. He “allowed” it is better way to think of it. ”

      But I was saying that God must have ‘created’ Buddhism. Can anything exist without God’s knowledge or intervention or creative abilities? If he created it then he surely would approve of his own creation wouldn’t he? Certainly as long as it was doing some good in the world. God likes good works and deeds (the basic definition of the word righteousness) doesn’t he? —
      Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness or always wanting to do good works and who want to do the right things because they will be satisfied……Jesus…..Matthew 5:6

      ” Christianity is about choosing to love God. It being perfect. ”

      I think we need to be somehow ‘encouraged’ rather than ‘choosing’ to love God. We need to be ‘touched’ from above and that we wouldn’t ordinarily love something we weren’t familiar with. That ‘encouragement’ comes from the ‘spirit’ he…

  4. This post made me realize that RNS does not have columnist or commentators who are Buddhist or Hindu or any other Eastern religion.

    D7D2, who are you to tell Buddhists that they are practicing a false religion? I profoundly disagree that there is only one way to God. I don’t think you really understand what Buddhism is. Jesus is not the Messiah. Jesus did not fulfill the prophecy for the coming of the Messiah in the Hebrew Bible. The only way it is possible to see Jesus to fulfill the prophecies is to read the Bible
    backwards already believing that Jesus is the Messiah, but I do think that for believers Christianity can be a valid way to God. Why can’t you accept that other religions are too?

    I don’t see how knowing that meditation is a form of brain manipulation makes it unreal. It makes it more real to me. I don’t see what’s wrong with it.

    • Susan,

      ” Jesus is not the Messiah. Jesus did not fulfill the prophecy for the coming of the Messiah in the Hebrew Bible. ”

      You can get challenged over an assertion like that. If I knew my Bible better, I’d be able to point out a few things that you might find interesting. As for me, I’m more interested in what the Holy Spirit ‘shows me’ rather than how well I know and understand scripture. It’s easier and a more efficient ‘spirituality’ that way.

      ” but I do think that for believers Christianity can be a valid way to God. ”

      I think it’s an excellent way and full of benefits too which makes it especially rewarding.

      Isn’t it really the ‘benefits’ that give one religion an advantage over another?

  5. I don’t think that Buddhists think that one can completely destroy the ego or desire. Buddhist, to the best of my knowledge, want you to look at those desires with equanimity and realize that they are not permanent. They come and go.

  6. Jesus never literally said that he was the Messiah. Others made that claim. He may have believed he was the Messiah, but he never said so. If he believed he was the Messiah he wasn’t lying.

  1. Comment marked as low quality by the editors. Show comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

 characters available

Comments with many links may be automatically held for moderation.