Roller Coaster Aging

Roller CoasterLast night, I came across this line in one of my current reading options:

“I remember forty—a hard age. It is the age when a man discovers that he is all that he is ever going to be. Some men are rather pleased at the discovery. I suspect your brother is not.”

Perhaps this author was somewhat prescient. Today, researchers announced the results of an 80-country study measuring depression in men and women. Apparently, hitting your 40s triggers something:

For men and women the probability of depression slowly builds and then peaks when people are in their forties—a similar pattern found in 72 countries ranging from Albania to Zimbabwe, the researchers said.

About eight nations—mostly in the developing world—did not follow the U-shaped pattern for happiness levels, Oswald and his colleague David Blanchflower of Dartmouth College in the United States wrote.

“It happens to men and women, to single and married people, to rich and poor, and to those with and without children,” Oswald said. “Nobody knows why we see this consistency.”

One possibility may be that people realize they won’t achieve many of their aspirations at middle age, the researchers said. (link)

It makes a sort of morbid sense that we use age/time to determine the plausibility of our aspirations. After all, we haven’t figured out the key to individual immortality, so our time in this world is finite. But with life expectancy in the U.S. edging towards 80, I wonder why we aren’t shifting away from focusing on the amount of time to focusing on our desires.

The data (for more of my thoughts on data, see this earlier post) would seem to indicate that a high probability exists you won’t be happy in your 40s. I suggest that it’s time to prove the data wrong. The first step would require that we stop associating a particular age with an event. Heresy, I know, but if we didn’t feel like it was a race against an internal calendar, perhaps we could make better decisions about the choices we’re pursuing.

I believe the key is to reframe the aspiration so that time doesn’t become the driving factor behind the decision. Reframing requires pushing against many of society’s traditions because we’ve become entrenched with idea of timing everything in our lives. Are you ready to throw the clock and the calendar aside?


(Image courtesy of Lava. Some rights reserved.)


5 Responses to “Roller Coaster Aging”

  1. January 29, 2008 at 3:34 pm

    In less than a month, I will be hitting the big 4-0. Sure, there are things that, upon reflection, I wish I could change, but do you know what? All those life events and decisions have shaped me into who I am today. My take on life at this point? My life began with one hill – everything was simple. Then everything got a lot more complicated – many hills appeared. Now, my goal is to find which hills I want to die on. I’m trying to limit those to no more than a hand full. It’s not easy.

    I agree with you. Time should not be a driving factor for our aspirations. Why? Because, we are not in control of how much time we have. I think we’ve all played out the “what would I do differently if I knew today was my last day on earth?” scenario. My answer to that? Make sure you’re wearing clean underwear.

  2. January 29, 2008 at 9:20 pm

    I found 38 and 39 to be the hardest ages, but 40 was very exciting. I think what made the difference was that when I was 38-39, I didn’t have the sense that all the career gambles I’ve taken would pay off, and I was depressed. But by the time I hit 40, clarity had come and I had a great deal to look forward to. I could also see that I had 40 years of life experience, which is nothing to sneeze at. And after 40 years of being me, I’m finally getting comfortable with myself, which is awesome. I started telling people I was 40 six months before I turned 🙂

    My Dad also commented that 40 was the age in his culture that wisdom started to develop.

    On the flip side, I have a tendency to be rather optimistic about what I think I can accomplish, and opportunities spring out at us from so many directions that there isn’t any reason to think that something CAN’T happen. While I may never be a world-renowned scientist/hacker/musician, I do know that I can make some kind of meaningful contribution, and that’s enough for me to look forward to another 40 years.

  3. 3 Britt
    January 30, 2008 at 12:39 pm

    @Caleb: You make the excellent point that who you have become is dues to series of events. Thinking that any one big event has more power than another shortchanges those smaller, seemingly commonplace things that actual define big chunks of our lives. And the clean underwear rule is an excellent one to follow, regardless of your outlook on life.

    @Dave: The idea of meaningful contribution is something we don’t pay enough attention to. We often get caught up in the definitions set by the larger group, ignoring that value doesn’t have to be apparent to the world as a whole in order to be pursue something of worth.

    I’m not particularly fond of my younger self…too arrogant, ignorant, and all the other bad adjectives used to describe youth. I consider time to be my saving grace from myself and that eventually, I may dull the edges of my worst parts.

  4. February 1, 2008 at 11:21 am

    It’s so interesting how each person’s perception of time in relation to their life and then in relation to other’s lives can be so different but so the same.

    Time has always been something of a fascination for me. Even as a young child I’d stare at clocks and try to really grasp what it was I looking at vs. what I was experiencing. It’s intangible…and for us it’s finite.

    I was watching a series on Discovery Science, entitled “TIME”. It explores all the various aspects of time, you all should look it up. What I found most fascinating was that every living thing has a cluster of cells in the brain that is solely there to perceive time. As we all age this cluster of cells ages and as a result, our perceptions of time change. Think of how that innate perception and our evolving perceptions of ourselves interact to create that general feeling of time and what we’ve done/will do with it.

  5. 5 Britt
    February 3, 2008 at 1:02 pm

    @Renee: Your comments reminded me of how time seemed to creep by as a child, at least for for me. Then, as I got older, time seemed to pick up speed. Days and years got shorter, leaving me with the feeling that I was running out of time.

    Our relationship with time isn’t one we often feel comfortable exploring. We have an even more difficult time admitting the connection between our feelings towards time and its impact on our actions.

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