Your Spotify account is now hijacked by The Wiggles. You’ve become involuntarily celibate. Your three-year old has just got another pea stuck up his nose… Yes, fatherhood is wondrous and life-affirming and so on and so forth. But it can also prove a daily challenge.
The bad news is that most men will navigate this at a stage of life when they’re also under the most emotional duress. The average age of a first-time dad in Australia is 33. Consequently, most men will be taking on a significant chunk of #DadLife during their 40s. But research suggest this timing is hardly ideal.
Economists from Warwick University in the UK conducted a huge study that followed 50,000 adults in Australia, Britain and Germany throughout their lives. They found levels of contentment tended to hit an all-time low when people hit their 40s. The specific age of peak misery varied from country to country. But while the global average was 46, in Australia the age when people were most dejected was 40.2.
Researchers call this mid-life dip “the U-shaped life-satisfaction curve” – an idea that’s supported by a bundle of academic studies.“It’s that nasty transition when you feel you haven’t achieved what you wanted to,” explains Jonathan Rauch, author of The Happiness Curve: Why Life Gets Better After Midlife. “You’re disappointed in the past and pessimistic about the future.”
Luckily, there’s light at the end of the tunnel – the stats show that happiness levels typically start to rise in your 50s. But what can you do if you’re venturing into your woebegone 40s?
THE COMPARISON TRAP
Money, fame, wild sex … there’ll always be someone who’s outgunning you in each department. But if you waste time comparing yourself to their solution, you’re leaping on an express train straight to the doldrums.
During his own midlife slump, Rauch found himself doing this compulsively. Aware that the habit was bringing him down, he developed a basic system of cognitive behaviour treatment to break the loop. Whenever he found himself negatively comparing himself to someone else, Rauch would repeat the mantra: “No comparison”. The idea was to silence the inner critic before it could deliver another sneering rebuke.
It’s sound advice if you’ve ever found yourself convulsing with envy at a mate’s high-rolling lifestyle on Instagram. To stay sane, strive to appreciate what you’ve got rather than what you haven’t. As economist Richard Layard says in Rauch’s book: “One secret to happiness is to ignore comparisons with people who are more successful than you and always compare downwards not upwards.”
EMBRACE THE NORM
Rauch hit his rocky period in his 40s. “I felt like I might never feel satisfied with anything again,” he recalls.
Compounding his anguish was an awareness that, on paper, his life was actually pretty good – he was happily married and kicking major career goals (he’d just won the National Magazine Award in the US – the magazine industry’s equivalent of the Pulitzer Prize). Yet knowing that his disquiet had no logical basis only aggravated Rauch’s malaise by making him feel ungrateful to boot.
While writing his book, Rauch spoke to psychologists who counsel people for mid-life dissatisfaction. Their advice: instead of beating yourself up over this self-perceived character flaw, normalise what you’re going through and remember this is a typical developmental stage that will eventually disperse.
“You need to break the spiral of self-recrimination that happens to people in this age-related funk,” Rauch says. “Remind yourself that it’s a normal, natural, healthy transition. Yes, it’s a pain to go through. But it has a splendid pay-off in your 50s, 60s, 70s, even 80s.”
STEP DON’T LEAP
Men are virtually hard-wired to try and fix problems. When you’re stuck in a rut, it’s natural to want to shake things up. But that doesn’t necessarily mean you should chuck in your nine-to-five day job on a mad impulse. Or embark on some doomed affair with the 22-year-old office receptionist.
“Step don’t leap,” advises Rauch. “Change is often important and necessary. But especially in this period of life it is important to keep change logical. Be suspicious of disruptive change.”
That doesn’t mean your masterplan to sell your house and become a diving instructor in the Philippines doesn’t have merit. Maybe just canvas the opinions of trusted friends and family first.
People at the bottom of the U-curve often isolate themselves by not talking to those close to them about how they feel. “They don’t want to panic their loved ones or be mocked for having a mid-life crisis so they keep it secret,” Rauch says.
Don’t go it alone: talk to your wife or phone a friend. If they’re a similar vintage then, chances are, they’ll know exactly what you’re talking about.