After my 30th birthday, I felt a change. I blew out the candles on a castle-shaped cake baked directly from The Australian Women’s Weekly cook book, looked at the cluster of friends I had by my side, considered the life I had lived until then and counted myself powerfully calm and content. My greatest birthday gift was a new-found, extremely welcome sense of peace with myself that I truly never felt throughout my teenage years and twenties.
I was desperately ambitious back then, obsessive about thinness and dedicated to pleasing people. In my fourth decade of life, I feel like I know a little more of who I am and I’ve settled into that. I look at my mother, my friends’ mothers and my mother’s friends – all in their fifties now, sidling up to 60 – and I see in them an even further developed contentment. They seem to care less about what people think, they value themselves more and they see in themselves what their beloveds have probably seen all along: loveliness and potential and worth. They are happy, like I am, only theirs is an even more conspicuous comfort. There’s an ease with which they know who they are; a confidence that wasn’t there before. It made me think: Do women get happier as they get older? Do we find some sort of peace and solace and joy when we make it past the big five-oh?
According to happiness experts, it’s not quite so simple. It is not, as I had perhaps hoped, an incremental thing, where happiness simply gains momentum as we get older. Our lifetimes are also not, as we so often suspect – when we’re being grim about our mortality – a downward journey towards old age. Happiness, according to academics, is a U-bend. The U-shaped curve of happiness remains true even when scientists control for factors like physical health, number of children, education and marital status. Researchers have found evidence that life satisfaction is quite good to begin with, flourishes a little as we become adults then tapers off until we hit a low point in our forties. The average age at which we reach this nadir is 47. Roughly the age we usually have a “mid-life crisis”.
It’s ordinarily when people who’ve raised kids suddenly have to deal with their teenage or adult problems, as well as caring for their elderly parents and even seeing them die; a shocking thing to those of us who like to think of our mothers and fathers as somehow invincible. It’s when we tend to have crises of confidence, as we work out who we are, if not young, if not old, if not fresh in our careers, if not close to retirement. It is surely disconcerting, to be middle-aged, not able to claim either the hope of the young or the quiet of the old. It is a time between responsibilities, between the versions of ourselves we become over a lifetime.
“What a comfort and a joy to know that, rather than being frightened of getting older, we could actually be looking forward to it.”
Then, cheerfully, our happiness levels kick back upward again, increasing as we sail past 50 and elevating further as we get into our sixties and seventies. This is when we are, I suppose, more sure of who we are in this world, less shackled by social expectation, more likely to know what matters most. Vanity, ambition, the very female desire to be liked; these things loosen their hold on us a little, set us free. Or so I can guess. By the time we get truly, properly old, in our eighties and nineties, happiness tends to take a little dive again. But it is nourishing and joyous, to know that we enjoy ourselves so much in our fifties and beyond. It is truly, something to look forward to.
To get a little more perspective on this happiness journey of ours, I spoke to several women in their fifties. They are all strangers to me; simply women generous enough to give me their thoughts on happiness, age, mortality and self-knowing.
Elizabeth, 52, says that as she’s grown older, she’s learned to relax into herself. “I’m not happier like ‘haha’ happy, I’m happier like calm and content. It’s about contentment for me. I am settled in who I am and I know myself. All the things that were dramas in my twenties – bad days at work, broken relationships – they’re all just things that happen but the difference is that I know it’s all going to be alright. I’m old enough now that my friends are getting ill and some have even died, so this idea of mortality creeps in and I’ve just realised I’m not getting a second chance at this life, so I’d better make the most of it.” Interestingly, Elizabeth didn’t enjoy her forties nearly so much. “When I turned 40, I refused to have a party. It wasn’t that I was scared of getting older, it was just that I wasn’t happy. I had a 50th birthday party, though, and invited friends I hadn’t seen in decades. We’ve had problems in our lives since then, sure, but I’m just feeling better about them. I used to feel so struck by imposter syndrome – now, I just don’t care anymore.”
Lesley, 55, has had a similar trajectory. “Over the last 10 years, a lot has changed – in my body, in my family, in my life,” she says. “I used to be timid and scared of upsetting people, but now I’m more inclined to assert myself. I think, you know what, I quite like myself. I am more open with people, I value people more, I enjoy my relationships more. A decade ago, I was peri-menopausal and at this stage in my career where I didn’t know what I wanted. My adult daughter was having mental health problems. I couldn’t have imagined feeling like I do now.”
When I speak to Jo, 54, she echoes a lot of the same thoughts. “My forties were a time of great change: moving house, divorce, both my parents going through chemotherapy, the early stages of peri-menopause, going solo parenting my boys. In 2013, I found myself slumped and sobbing in the biscuit aisle of the supermarket, with my sons watching in disbelief, saying I simply couldn’t go on. My mum died on my 49th birthday. Somehow despite the sadness, it became a springboard for joy, ease with who I am and a sense of purpose. I’m so much more grateful for what I have and who I have in my life. I’m so much happier and I noticed a huge change after my 50th birthday. I am so much less interested in what others think of me and I make time for myself. I’m kinder to myself.”
It feels like this glorious open secret: that our fifties are actually the greatest decade of our lives. What a comfort and a joy to know that, rather than being frightened of getting older, we could actually be looking forward to it. Just have to get through the forties, first.
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