On happiness, or our lack thereof

Happiness. It’s kind of a national obsession. Just do a quick Google search. It’s nauseating to realize how many Fast Company articles and TED talks are devoted to the subject. Whether we’re young or old, rich or poor, we’re less obsessed with having happiness than we are with talking about why we don’t have it and how we can fix that. As if there were a recipe.

Journalist Jonathan Rauch had a recent story in The Atlantic on the midlife crisis. It’s just another in a long line of well-researched, professionally published stories which have surfaced in reputable publications over the last few years on the subject of happiness, but it prompted me to put down a few of my own thoughts on the subject which I will commence forthwith.

In his story Rauch analyzes specifically the over-stereotyped and over-discussed ‘midlife crisis,’ although he couches the ubiquitous catchphrase in new terms. As Rauch discovered after going through a ‘crisis’ of his own, there is an increasingly large body of research from both economics and sociology experts which shows evidence of something called the u-curve. It’s pretty self-explanatory. Happiness and general life satisfaction follow a u-shaped pattern; you start at the top in childhood/adolescence and young adulthood, grow increasingly harder to please as you approach midlife, then, typically in your early 50’s, you start to climb back up the u, concluding your life generally pretty close to where you started in terms of overall happiness.

Surprising? I think so.

First of all we’ve been using this term midlife crisis to refer to an actual ‘crisis.’ You know the story. Mostly men, it seems, start an affair, buy a corvette and generally act irresponsibly in middle age, a reaction, we (or at least I) have always chalked up to the boredom and malaise that naturally sets in as one begins to realize their youth has flown by and their perceived ‘glory days’ are behind them. What Rauch seems to be positing is that while this ‘midlife crisis’ isn’t a fallacy, perhaps ‘crisis’ is the wrong word.

For Rauch the bottoming out of the u curve in his 40’s evidenced itself more as a foundationless depression. His life was great; dream job, wonderful relationship, good friends, but for some reason, every morning he would wake up with an overwhelming depression, a dissatisfaction that he called “whiny and irrational.”

This midlife depression can last a long time, a decade for some. For Rauch it took until he hit his early 50’s when, despite some “real setbacks,” the “fog of disappointment and self-censure began to lift.”

I’m torn on this one. Science is science and there is certainly a lot of research to back up the idea of happiness following a u-curve throughout life (although all researchers are quick to admit that it is not a catch-all and there are many people to whom it does not apply), but while the findings offer some comfort for those in middle-age who suffer from the same confusing sense of disappointment as Rauch, it’s a bit discomfiting for those of us in our 20’s, especially those of us in our 20’s who are already feeling a sense of “malcontentedness” on a regular basis.

It’s not that I’m unhappy, to the contrary, 80% of the time I would say that I’m very happy. But, like Rauch, despite having what most days I can easily say is my ‘dream life,’ on a fairly regular basis I wake up with an overwhelming sense of depression which, although not always, can last for an entire day, and I find it hard to believe I’m the only person of my generation that experiences something along the same lines.

Maybe I’m a cynical person (okay, not maybe) but I kind of always expected that sense of unhappiness to be fairly prevalent. We’re told a story about life and fed a narrative by the culture at large about how exciting and wonderful our young adulthood is when in reality it is a profoundly confusing time, and no time has it been more confusing than in the 21st century. I chalk it up in large part to the expectation gap, which, happens to be what I believe causes most of life’s strife, be it familial, marital or work-related. I would propose that the expectation gap has been severely exacerbated by a couple of things unique to Millenials;

  • Our generation’s constant exposure to a previously unimaginable stream of content
  • A life lived socially online

We read books, we watch tv, we watch movies, we listen to music, we peruse blogs, constantly, and, perhaps most importantly, we use Facebook or Instagram (same difference for the purpose of my point) obsessively. In his article Rauch discusses his disappointment and how it was in large part driven by comparing himself to others, “where was my bestseller? My literary masterpiece?” But that is something that begins much earlier than middle age in the age of constant exposure.

The gap between our life and the ‘perceived’ lives of those around us often seems ridiculously huge, and this generation is hyper-aware of those discrepancies.

I would hypothesize that, despite all of the cheerleading we do to the contrary, living in the Internet age is causing a profound sense of dissatisfaction.

After two decades of television and life lived in large part online, we expect and often need our accomplishments viewed and thereby affirmed. We not only seek affirmation we’re addicted to it. It’s old hat now to say something along the lines of “if it’s not on Facebook it didn’t happen.” And while we may have collectively moved on to Instagram, it’s really the same thing isn’t it? Another artificial method by which we think we are creating ourselves and our public persona.

Life lived on social media can’t help but inculcate the need to be recognized into its users because the services by definition, are intended to secure attention. The services, by their nature, appear to create what I’ll just call the ‘celebrity’ effect. We, just like the fictional characters we see constantly in our screen-filled life, now function as if our lives are on display. While it may not be a source of pervasive unhappiness for everyone, we’re all affected.

Enter the expectation gap. There comes a time in the life of every 20-something wherein it hits. It hits that despite the Facebook likes and Instagram hearts, you’re still in exactly the same place you would have been without them. Unlike the people on TV you still go home at the end of the day to your normal house with your normal stuff and your normal self. People have already forgotten how impressed they were with your ass in those gym shorts or the picture of the impressive sounding philosophy book you’re currently ‘obsessed with.’

Women aren’t obsessing over the fact that you’re smart and attractive, and that cute guy isn’t going to reach out just because you’re listening to a rare Dinosaur Jr. cut on your iPhone (FYI. If you weren’t aware, there’s a whole codified language in the 21st century of ‘cool’ and ‘not cool.’ Girls that listen to obscure rock cuts would fall into the ‘cool’ category. Moving on.) But despite the fact that we’re not being noticed for what we think we should be noticed, despite that fact, we keep expecting people to notice us don’t we? We keep expecting our manipulated persona to have an effect on our real lives, and when it doesn’t, reality hits. Enter depression.

It’s something unique to the generation of people who grew up living online, and something we’re just beginning to grasp the ramifications of. We’ve already realized what online anonymity allows people to do, but how does the gap between expected recognition and actual recognition affect us?

I say all of this not at all to discount the fact that middle age is hard, but I do so mostly to posit, perhaps, that this u-curve research bullshit is about to get turned on its head thanks to the Millenials, because despite all of our ambition, our smarts and our work ethic (and shut up those of you who want to denigrate said ethic because everyone I know works their ass off, usually at more than one job), I would venture we’re one of the most disappointed generations yet. Not in a debilitating way. In a quiet way. And one smart people tend to realize is entirely our own fault.

Take all of this with a grain of salt, as I’m sure you will. After all it’s one person among millions, one person who has used a very small research sample from which to hypothesize conclusions, and, just like with the u-curve, this certainly won’t apply to everyone. But we don’t talk enough about the sense of disappointment, and even depression, social media instills in its users, probably because, like I mentioned above, it’s not debilitating. It’s quiet and in all honesty, it’s quite easy to ignore most of the time. But I think it’s there and we would all be wrong in asserting that constant exposure to the lives of others doesn’t have an effect on us. Humans weren’t meant to be in constant contact with an extended network. Sometimes we’re meant to be alone and most of us have forgotten what that truly feels like.

If you make it this far, forgive what is a rather incomplete thought. I’m really just beginning to parse through this topic, and there are many more unique factors that contribute to unhappiness, or at least disappointment amongst my generation. Writing is just a way to work through my philosophy.

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