The U-bend: Life begins at 46

Life may be about to get happier.

According to the Economist, new studies show that the “self-reported well-being” that people feel over the course of their lives resembles a “U-bend.” We start happy as teenagers, then become more and more stressed and uncomfortable. Then we hit 46. That’s when the U-bend begins to go up. According to the Economist, this is fairly constant among cultures and even income levels — “Americans and Zimbabweans have not been formed by similar experiences, yet the U-bend appears in both their countries.” The academics who authored one study on the U-bend noted that Pete Townshend, once the angry young man leading the Who, is past 60 and “writing a blog that glowed with good humour.”

Well, that is good news. I turned 46 this year. I’m ready to sink into the U-bend ski lift. Although it’s possible that I may have initiated the U-bend launch a couple years ago, when at age 44 I was diagnosed with cancer. For me, the diagnosis of lymphoma was a relief. I had been feeling lousy for well over a year and was convinced I had chronic fatigue syndrome. Or arthritis. Or Lyme disease. Then they found out what it was. I got treated, and survived. I had been keeping a YouTube diary of sorts when I landed in the hospital in December 2008; it has documented my before and after:

When I was diagnosed and during my chemo treatment, I felt acceptance and calm (although obviously not all the time). These are trademarks of the U-bend. There is no hard science on why the U-bend happens, but the Economist speculates on why: “maybe people come to accept their strengths and weaknesses, give up hoping to become chief executive or have a picture shown in the Royal Academy, and learn to be satisfied as assistant branch manager, with their watercolour on display at the church fete.”

I think that’s part of the truth, but not all of it. The French Catholic writer Charles Peguy once said: “Life holds only one tragedy, ultimately: not to have been a saint.” Being a saint does not simply entail being nice to people. It involves an adherence to the truth about the human person — the truth that we are not simply flesh and blood, that the conscience is, as St. Ambrose put it, “God’s herald and messenger,” that there is right and wrong and our souls are a battlefield, and that death is not the end. I think part of our happiness is the slow and steady realization of our spiritual nature, its relation to the truth, and that, if we are lucky, after dying we may, as the great priest and author Benedict Groeschel once put it, “partake in the life of God.” It’s not as much that we don’t care about being movie stars — I still have a couple books I’d like to write — it’s that we are embracing something bigger.