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Turning 40: it doesn't have to be the end of the world

A survey says our happiness levels drop on hitting 40, but we’re more content when we reach our 50s. We asked four writers if they agree

Published 28/11/2015

Party over: turning 40 does not have to be the end of the world
Party over: turning 40 does not have to be the end of the world
Suzanne Breen's children Alanna and Sorcha
Stadium of light: Henry McDonald has had lots of happiness at Solitude
Money woes: Una Brankin was hit by the recession in the Republic, but some were worse-off, forced to beg in the streets

If you’re in your 40s and they’re not working out as fabulously as you’d hoped, you’re not alone. A major study has found that our happiness levels tend to dip when we exit our 30s, as family and work pressures mount up.

But the good news is happiness is “U-shaped” and we gradually become more content with our lot as we enter our 50s.

Researchers at the University of Warwick tracked 50,000 adults throughout their lives and asked them to complete “life-satisfaction” questionnaires at various stages.

They found that many people became “very dissatisfied” during their 40s, with happiness levels hitting rock-bottom, on average, between the ages of 40 and 42.

People then became gradually less-miserable until they reach their 70s, when happiness levels again drop off.

We asked four Belfast Telegraph writers if their 40s were fabulous ... or frightful.

Eilis O'Hanlon: From May to December is a long way and the days grow short when you reach September. That’s what the song says. Wrongly, as it happens. The days don’t grow short as you head into middle age, but very long, filled with time-consuming work and family commitments and angst-inducing financial pressure. That’s why, according to a new study, our 40s are the most miserable of our lives.

Numerous surveys have reached the same conclusion, so this isn’t exactly ground-breaking research. Certainly not to those of us who are either in, or have recently passed through, our less-than-fabulous 40s.

We don’t need boffins to point out what Basil Fawlty once memorably called “the bleeding obvious”. We’ve been there, done that and been landed with the bill for the over priced T-shirt, thank you very much.

Having said that, it’s harder for us to be objective about our collective state of mind, because our 40s coincided with one of the worst recessions in recent history.

Wages were falling, work was drying up, we were saddled with large mortgages on houses no longer worth what we paid for them. Who wouldn’t be ticked off in the same position?

This definitely isn’t what we had in mind back in our 20s, when the world looked brand new, as opposed to slightly shop-soiled. But are we miserable because misery is the natural disposition of someone our age, or simply because circumstances right now have left us feeling over-worked, underpaid and under appreciated?

Fingers crossed it’s the latter, because that way, as long as things keep getting better, our own children won’t face the same dispiriting morass when they exit their 30s.

It’s important not to be too melodramatic either way. Things could be worse. Yes, the recession was a kick in the teeth, but we’re still comparatively lucky next to previous generations and they didn’t seem to moan half as much as we do.

My parents were put out of the house they owned in Belfast in their 40s and my mother was seriously injured by a bomb. If that doesn’t put my own problems in perspective, nothing will.

We’re all so pampered these days that we seem to think happiness is a right, rather than something that needs to be constantly worked at. Though put that way, the prospect doesn’t sound so appealing. Why should we have to work at happiness when misery comes so effortlessly?

That hardly seem fair. Nor does being asked to work hard at happiness when working hard at work is already exhausting enough.

That’s the thing about being on the wrong side of 40. You’re stuck in your ways.

Faced with the prospect of making an effort to go out and embrace new experiences, or else putting your feet up, opening a bottle of wine and watching TV, there’s no contest.

Of course, we’re not supposed to enjoy that wine either for fear the health nannies start nagging us about the burden our ageing, sozzled livers and expanding waistlines are putting on the health service, but that at least is one benefit of getting older — you care less what other, especially younger, people think.

It also has to be better than turning into one of those fortysomethings who won’t stop boring on about seizing the day and living each day to the full. You do that, dear, if you must. Personally I’m too tired to bother.

Not least because being a permanently cheery pain in the rear end would be a far worse fate than staying a plain old-fashioned misery guts.

Our gloom has been hard-earned. We’re entitled to it.

Suzanne Breen: If I were in PR, I'd tell you that this is the best decade of my life. That I've finally found myself, am more content   and chilled than ever before and am free of all that held me back in my younger years.

Well, b**** to all that. I'm not a spin doctor, I'm a journalist - and one who prides herself on telling it as it is.

My 40s have been frightful.

They've been the most stressful and restrictive of times. Working from home with two young children leads to a prison-like existence. The most you can hope for is getting through the day.

Journalism isn't a nine-to-five job, so juggling it with kids presents massive challenges. You're trying to interview a politician on the phone and somebody starts singing Jingle Bells at the top of their voice, or spills their dinner over the floor.

You've just got the girls into the bath when that call you've been waiting for all day comes through. You leave the room for two minutes and the youngest draws a princess in a castle over your notes.

I had my kids late, so I'm just experiencing what many other working women did earlier in their lives. Friends whose children are now grown up, or at least are much more independent, are finding their 40s fabulous.

They've more free time and money than ever before.

Their lives are now a well-deserved whirlwind of restaurants, concerts and city breaks.

Socially, I'm a hermit nowadays. I've lost contact with far too many people, because work and children take up so much time. At best, friendships are maintained on the phone and if somebody says they're calling by, I look at the mess all around me and put them off.

I wouldn't be without my kids. There's not a night I don't go into their rooms to kiss and wonder at them as they sleep. But let's not pretend that for all the joy they bring, there's not hell, too.

With flexible childcare, or family to lend a hand, everything is doable. Without them, it's torturously tough. The decade that you have small children just can't be your happiest.

I question the often-advertised advantages of hitting middle-age. Some women say they only discover and assert themselves now. For me, that's hippy-dippy claptrap. I didn't find myself in my 40s because I was never lost in the first place, nor did I ever care a hoot about what other people thought of me.

This is the decade during which your body can begin to betray you. It's not just that everything goes south, injuries take far longer to heal.

I've always had a dodgy left ankle. I remember first spraining it in my 20s and hopping along on crutches, in a gypsy dress, feeling interesting and exotic.

I sprained it again a few months ago and it was painfully slow to improve. A frozen shoulder combined to seal the deal.

Crawling upstairs on my hands and knees, with only one arm and one leg working, I certainly didn't feel that I was living the dream.

But enough complaining. However rough the ride, we've the good fortune to still be here - hanging on.

Henry McDonald: Rich men’s mid-life crises usually involve the purchase of a high-powered sports car, preferably red, and the acquisition of a younger woman, preferably blonde. It also entails them starting to squeeze into crotch-crushing jeans with accompanying sports jacket and white shirt unbuttoned down to their chest hair.

The rest of us middle-aged strugglers, like this writer, have to search for more mundane ways to drink at the fountain of eternal youth.

In my late-40s, this meant a return to the crew-cut and the wearing of a red, tartan-lined Harrington jacket and a pair of ox-blood red Doctor Martens.

Not that I’m complaining, although, according to researchers Andrew Oswald, Terence Cheng and Nick Powdthatvee, I should be relieved to have left my 40s behind and be ready now to embrace my glorious 50s.

The economists tracked 50,000 adults for Warwick University across Britain, Germany and Australia and found that the 40s are the most miserable years of your life. Because of pressures from work and family, the existential crisis point reaches its apex in your 40s, the researchers concluded.

To an extent, there is some truth in this argument, at least based on personal experience.

My 40s, particularly the latter end of that time span, were punctuated by a series of personal tragedies, from marital break-up to the death of both my parents within four months of each other.

Yet, like any other adult in the developed world, these milestones of misery occurred in between moments of great joy, such as the birth of a son, two daughters advancing  academically through school and one soon on her way to Trinity College Dublin to read Law.

Indeed, in the face of personal adversity (some of it wholly self-inflicted and my fault), I also learnt a lot about myself and discovered who my friends really were in times when I was on the floor.

I reconnected with long-lost friends I hadn’t seen for at least a decade, including some of my old Cliftonville mates who, as well as helping me to rediscover the bliss of being at Solitude through the wind, the rain, the snow, the sun, also brought a bit of light into life at times of terrible darkness.

Yet, when I hear the term “mid-life crisis”, I am always minded (as my father once told me) to think about the lives of others.

Mostly, these are the lives of those in parts of the world where a “crisis” means instant death, starvation, blindness, torture, or exile in countries blighted by want and tyranny.

And I recall, back in my 30s, watching the face of the usually stone-cold professional Jeremy Paxman quiver with emotion as he turned to the Newsnight studio camera on the back of a harrowing report from Angola about the abandoned orphans of that west African country’s seemingly endless civil war.

“We don’t know we’re born,” Paxman said in an angry pay-off from this disturbing piece of reportage.

Paxman’s words still keep coming back to me whenever I hear the words “crisis” and “personal”.

As for the 50s, well, when I marked its beginning back in July with impromptu drinks at Bittles bar in downtown Belfast, I was at first morose, casting my mind back to my 40th birthday party a decade earlier and wondering, as we all do, where all those years had gone.

For a few minutes, I was filled with existential dread, but this soon petered out when I looked across the table at one of my drinking companions — my old chum, Mr Good Vibrations himself, Terri Hooley.

If Hooley could survive his 50s (and now his 60s) after such a life of libertine excess, there was hope for us all — even me.

Una Brankin: How these studies “measure” something as subjective as happiness is a bit daft. Anyway, turning 40 didn’t faze me — although I started to buy more expensive skin creams — and the first few years of middle-age were no different to my 30s.

As the stork didn’t come to our house, my husband, Declan and I have no childcare worries — one of the major causes of stress and financial strain for those in their 40s.

We love the niece and nephew who live two doors down from us and are in and out of our place all the time, but we can hand them back if they get yappy.

And we don’t have to fork out £500 for them at Christmas; another one of these studies put the average presents spend per child at £250. Given the fact that Dec and I only buy each other stocking-fillers, we’re not overly-burdened at Christmas. Or any other time of the year, come to that.

We’re not extravagant; don’t care about keeping up with the Joneses and are content to wait until we’re pensioners for nice, big holidays.

We’re amazed at friends and acquaintances suffering “status envy” (as psychologists call the would-be Joneses) — a typical grudge of fortysomethings feeling left behind.

This malaise reaches its height at time of economic boom and of recession equally, so we should have been prime candidates when the obnoxious Celtic Tiger suddenly stopped roaring.

Living in Dublin in our mid-40s, we saw our home shrink radically in value and avenues of revenue suddenly dry up.

The downturn affected me more badly financially than Declan. The combination of newspapers providing their product for free online had already made journalism a low-paid profession; now they were cutting back to the bone to ensure their owners’ profits weren’t dented.

On the other hand, business stayed steady for my husband and his brother, who are musicians/songwriters. Even though their CDs sales took a hit from illegal downloading online, their bookings for gigs actually increased. Apparently, live music in nightspots still makes a buck in hard times.

All this coincided with a joint desire to be closer to home and ageing parents, another potential for strain on those in their 40s and beyond.

We were pleased to find that the recession hadn’t affected the more sensible north of Ireland as badly as the over-spending, property-mad Republic — and even more delighted not to have to pay €65 to see a doctor and grossly inflated prescription charges.

Our bills were drastically reduced and clothes, groceries and eating out became more affordable. I hadn’t as much work on my plate, but I had more free time to spend with family and friends and read novels and go for long walks. What more could a fairly laid-back fortysomething-cum-fiftysomething want?

There’s one final factor that has made Dec and I an exception to the “miserable middle-age” rule.

As a lead guitarist and songwriter, he has never really grown up. And hanging around him all these years, I haven’t really, either.

Belfast Telegraph

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