The U-bend: Life begins at 46

Mark Judge Journalist and filmmaker
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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.

Surviving a brush with death, or feeling your mortality when you hit middle age, changes you in certain ways. In one sense, you have less patience for the ephemeral. I’ve been a journalist my entire life, but after my treatment I found I was only truly compelled by the writing of older journalists — H.L. Mencken, G.K. Chesterton, Joan Didion, Whittaker Chambers. These were people who were delving into the deepest questions about life, religion, the meaning of suffering and the philosophies about the meaning of the human person. Dana Milbank just seemed like silly bullshit compared to that. The internet, our endless blogs and tweets, have apparently made journalists draw away from big questions that were routinely addressed by past generations (or they are addressing them in superficial ways). There are exceptions: Christopher Hitchens, a fellow cancer patient (whose book “God is Not Great” is, I’m sad to say, intellectually inferior to Mencken’s “Treatise on the Gods”); David Remnick’s New Yorker; First Things magazine.

I remember being struck by something a few months ago. A writer at Slate magazine announced that he wanted to write a long-form piece of journalism, a real monster that could tackle a deep and meaningful topic. The only problem was, he couldn’t think of one. So he asked readers to send in requests.

Here I was, an unemployed freelance journalist going through chemotherapy, wondering how I was going to pay for what my insurance didn’t cover, and thinking about a million things I wanted to write at length about. I wanted to do a profile of Dawn Eden, the former Jewish music journalist who wrote the liner notes for over 80 albums, worked at the New York Post, converted to Catholicism and is earning a doctorate at the Dominican House of Studies. I wanted to explore whether the critic Martha Bayles is right that the idiom of musical genius shifted in the 20thcentury from symphonic European music to the “Afro-American idiom,” and therefore it is time for wags and conservatives to accept the genius of modern popular music. I wanted to investigate my hunch that Marion Barry had a huge role, perhaps the lead role, in the 1968 riots that devastated Washington, D.C. I wanted to write about God and love and the pope and Hinduism and Jhumpa Lahiri and the real house where the Exorcist took place and a bunch of other stuff.

I wanted to explore all these things but wondered how I would finance it all — and someone who was getting paid to write and given all the space to do so could not come up with a single idea. Can you imagine that happening to G.K. Chesterton? Tom Wolfe? It reminded me of a scene from about ten years ago at a wedding I went to. My aunt, who was dying of cancer at the time, was there — as was an active alcoholic who was in his cups. At one point she looked directly at him with sadness in her eyes. He asked her what the problem was. “I’ll tell you,” she said. “I have cancer. I’m here fighting for my life every day, and you’re just pissing yours away.” That man, who stayed in touch with the family, never drank again.

Ironically, U-bend studies have shown that U-bending people are healthier and more productive. People with lower stress and more happiness heal faster, and happy people perform better at work. In short, older people may make better employees. Makes me curious to hear Pete Townshend’s next album.

Mark Judge is the author of A Tremor of Bliss: Sex, Catholicism, and Rock ‘n’ Roll.