Photo by Annais Ferreira

Longitudinal studies, in which people’s life experiences are traced over time, come to the same conclusion:  life sucks in the mid-forties, on average

What do you want to be when you grow up?

Who didn’t experience in childhood the stupid question adults are prone ask:  “What do you want to be when you grow up”?

How could a 5 year old know what he wants to be in 20,40, 50 years? I remember answering that I wanted to be a British soldier. Never mind that I wasn’t British and couldn’t say a word in English. This was WWII, and the British soldiers looked so sharp, and heroic.

As the psychologist Daniel Kahneman points out, when the brain is confronted with a difficult question, it fakes it by answering an easier one. As a child, I couldn’t possibly figure out what I am going to be years from now, so I answered what I want to be now. As we’ll see later, this question is even more difficult to answer when asked of adults.


Why are we obsessed about the future?

Stumbling on HappinessDid Uncle Goldfish ever ask his nieces what they want to be when they become big goldfishes? Of course not. We take it for granted that their pea-size brain is not developed enough to handle such abstractions.

Even if we go up the phylogenetic ladder and come perilously close to humans, we can be fairly sure that the silverback chimp never worried about his clan’s young ones fate 5 years hence.

But we humans constantly worry, plan, even mortgage our present life, for the future. When and how does this happen?

Daniel Gilbert, in his wonderful book Stumbling on Happiness points out that:

“…paleontologists and neuroanatomists assure us that this pivotal moment in the drama of human evolution happened within the last 3 million years, and that it happened quite suddenly. The first brains appeared on earth about 500 million years ago, spent a leisurely 430 million years or so evolving into the brains of the earliest primates, and another 70 million years or so evolving into the brains of the first protohumans. Then something happened—no one knows quite what, but speculation runs from weather turning chilly to the invention of cooking—and the soon-to-be-human brain experienced an unprecedented growth spurt that more than doubled its mass in a little over 2 million years, transforming it from the one-and-a-quarter-pound brain of Homo habilis to the nearly three-pound brain of  Homo sapiens”.

But a growth spurt of the whole brain would still not turn us into the brainiacs that we have become. It is the frontal lobe (right behind the forehead) that grew inordinately in size and made us smart, but also made us capable of worrying about the future.

Since this trait persisted throughout our evolution, it must have some survival advantage. What could it be?

The answer is most probably humans’ abiding need for control. Our brains are not wired to handle ambiguity. We need to understand unambiguously what is going on around us; ambiguity leads to indecision, and this may lead to a quick demise. The need to be certain about the here and now is shared by most organisms large and small. But the desire to project and control the future comes to us courtesy of our outsized frontal lobe.


So what do you want to be in 20 years?

It turns out this is a loaded question. Jonathan Rauch, senior fellow at the Brookings Institute, wrote a fascinating article in the latest Atlantic magazine on the “Real Roots of Midlife Crisis.”

When we start out in life, we are optimistic about the future. The whole world is in our hands and we are going to change it for the better. We are going to be doctors and save lives, or special forces performing heroic exploits, or scientists conquering disease, or politicians being honest for a change.

But it’s downhill from there, until many of us end up in a midlife life crisis. Research shows that this inexorable decline in life satisfaction cannot be explained by income, marital status, employment, and so on. In a 2007 paper Blanchflower and Ostwald found that in 72 countries, the nadir in satisfaction, on average, occurs at age 46. Ukrainians, at the top of the range, are at their most miserable at age 62, and Swiss, at the bottom, at age 35.

Even more convincing, longitudinal studies, in which people’s life experiences are traced over time, come to the same conclusion:  life sucks in the mid-forties, on average. So what’s new, you might ask? Everybody knows that. But, did you know that life gets brighter after your forties, and gets better yet as you get older?

Although as people move towards old age they lose things they treasure—vitality, mental sharpness and looks—they also gain what people spend their lives pursuing: happiness.

Ask a bunch of 30-year-olds and another group of 70-year-olds (as Peter Ubel, of the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University, did with two colleagues, Heather Lacey and Dylan Smith, in 2006 in the Journal of Happiness) which group they think is likely to be happier, and both lots point to the 30-year-olds. Ask them to rate their own well-being, and the 70-year-olds are the happier bunch. This is called the U-curve of Happiness.

The U-curve of Happiness
The U-curve of Happiness

Surprisingly, this curious finding has emerged not from psychological research but from a new branch of economics that seeks a more satisfactory measure than money of human well-being. Conventional economics uses money as a proxy for utility—the dismal way in which the discipline talks about happiness. But these economists, unconvinced that there is a direct relationship between money and well-being, have decided to go to the nub of the matter and measure happiness itself. Thus, the U-curve.


So, why do we go through the roller coaster of happiness?

In short, we don’t really know. The fact that the U-curve is even more evident after you strip away confounding factors like income, employment, marital status, children, etc. suggests that it is something intrinsic to our psyche.

Psychologists offer explanations , or rather speculations. An interesting one is by Laura Carstensen, professor of psychology at Stanford University. She talks of “the uniquely human ability to recognize our own mortality and monitor our own time horizons.” 

Because the old know they are closer to death, she argues, they grow better at living for the present. They come to focus on things that matter now—such as feelings—and less on long-term goals. “When young people look at older people, they think how terrifying it must be to be nearing the end of your life. But older people know what matters most.”

I don’t know if she is right, but regardless, I say “Amen.”

So all you readers in your 40’s, take heart, it’s going to get better!


This post is dedicated to my dear Karen, Gil, Jason and Amy, who are in their 40s.

Featured Photo Credit: Annais Ferreira

Dov Michaeli, MD, PhD
Dov Michaeli, MD, PhD loves to write about the brain and human behavior as well as translate complicated basic science concepts into entertainment for the rest of us. He was a professor at the University of California San Francisco before leaving to enter the world of biotech. He served as the Chief Medical Officer of biotech companies, including Aphton Corporation. He also founded and served as the CEO of Madah Medica, an early stage biotech company developing products to improve post-surgical pain control. He is now retired and enjoys working out, following the stock market, travelling the world, and, of course, writing for TDWI.


  1. I agree with much of what you surmise, who am i to disagree? however…..this futile pursuit of happiness is an illusion.
    Before Benjamin Button the movie came out my grand father inAfrica used to say’ If we were born at eighty ” the outcome would be foregone as would the conclusion….the certainty of anything depends of the projected outcome…therefore it can only be true if you believe it to be so.
    I am now seventy and have explored the happiness conundrum for many years,.
    The truth seems to be be about certainty, since that is not really a possibility in that you could get run over by a bus tomorrow, happiness should be seen as a pursuit, just like life its the uncertainty and the search that makes us happy.

    lee du ploy (hong kong)

  2. One reason could be that the unhappiest people have died before their 70s. The CDC’s Adverse Childhood Experiences Study shows that people with the most childhood adversity have shorter lifespans.


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