Stoicism and the Valley of Unhappiness

Stoicism and the Valley of UnhappinessMiddle age has always been an unhappiness battlefield. In this post I explore how to avoid these feelings. To get out of the expected valley of unhappiness. To take action to spend time with those who make you happy. To avoid things that cause you unhappiness. To be happy with the person you are now.

A Mid-Life Unhappiness Crisis

Middle-age: a time when life changes. Career satisfaction becomes more about inner satisfaction. The focus at work is on contentedness and less on ambition and the desire to ‘advance’. Middle age can be a time when a person re-examines their life by taking stock of their accomplishments. Morality may change and become more conscious. There is a realisation that life will not last forever. A realisation that there are limitations to what one might accomplish or achieve. Often a middle-aged family member experiences the death of one’s parents. This makes the issue of mortality irrefutable. As children grow and leave, one’s role as caregiver and provider changes. Debt and financial worries reach a nadir.

With all of this happening I wasn’t surprised to learn that middle-aged men are officially the most miserable people in Britain. The Office of National Statistics has, over the last few years, asked 300 000 people how happy they are. The results show that the 40 – 59 age group had the highest levels of anxiety and the lowest levels of satisfaction. Once the age of 35 is reached happiness falls away. This reaches a peak between 50 and 54. It starts to rise again once a person hits 60. And men, on average, are less satisfied than women.

The Valley of Unhappiness

I think this is where Stoic ideas can help a person climb out of this valley of unhappiness. While ageing is one thing we all have in common ageing well isn’t all that common. Our lives are brief. They’re over in a blink of a cosmic eye, but we have an inbuilt tendency to ignore this fact and take each day for granted. We use the limited amount of time we have watching meaningless TV. Or we surf the web, or browsing social media or playing mindless computer games.

The responsibility for ageing well and remaining happy rests upon the individual. Stoics believe that “virtue is sufficient for happiness“. The Stoics spent their time trying to attain virtue.

In the Nicomachean Ethics, written in 350 BCE, Aristotle stated that happiness (also being well and doing well) is the only thing that humans desire for its own sake, unlike riches, honour, health or friendship. He observed that men sought riches, or honour, or health not only for their own sake but also to be happy. Note that eudaimonia, the term we translate as “happiness”, is for Aristotle an activity rather than an emotion or a state. Thus understood, the happy life is the good life, that is, a life in which a person fulfils human nature in an excellent way. Aristotle argues that the good life is the life of excellent rational activity. He arrives at this claim with the Function Argument. If it’s right, every living thing has a function, that which it uniquely does.

For humans, Aristotle contends, our function is to reason, since it is that alone that we do. And performing one’s function well, or excellently, is one’s good. Thus, the life of excellent rational activity is the happy life. Aristotle does not leave it that, however. For he argues that there is a second best life for those incapable of excellent rational activity. This second best life is the life of moral virtue.

What’s Your Focus?

Everyone’s life has positive and negative parts. It’s up you whether you decide which aspects to concentrate on.

Did someone cut you up on your commute today? At least you have a job to go to. Did your football team lose an important match? At least you were able to spend the time with your friends. Did you injure yourself while exercising? At least you can rest, read a book or watch a favourite TV show when you’re resting.

These examples are simply making a point, every negative situation has an opposite side, a positive.

The good news is that we come out of this U-shaped trough, and that the years 65-79 are the happiest of them all. As mentioned here:

In general, people seem to begin their lives with a high degree of contentment. From the age of around 18 we become gradually less happy, reaching a nadir in our 40s. One estimate suggests that, over the 30 years from teen to middle age, life satisfaction scores dip by an average of around 5-10%.

The greatest happiness is to know the source of unhappiness - Fyodor Dostoevsky

The greatest happiness is to know the source of unhappiness – Fyodor Dostoevsky

Yet the happiness curve is U-shaped. As we head into our 50s, levels of contentment take off again. By the time we’re in our 60s, it’s likely that we’ll never have been happier. (The upward trend doesn’t continue indefinitely, though: unsurprisingly, levels of satisfaction usually dip in the last couple of years of life.)

Once we leave middle age we have a degree of financial security, we are settled personally, and we don’t have to worry about work our career. We are free to once again take pleasure in the finer things in life.

The gradual narrowing of horizons is soothing. When you’re young, time seems limitless. Later on, you accept that you’ll never achieve everything you set out to. I don’t try to pretend that isn’t a relief.

A Lifelong Quest

And I think this search for happiness isn’t limited to middle-age. It’s a lifelong quest. This is especially true if we connect happiness to the achievement of specific goals. You may say to yourself that once I get a nice house, or car, or job, or partner, or similar … then I’ll be happy. Happiness then becomes about meeting your next goal. The focus shifts from the here and now to some time in the future.

Happiness shouldn’t be an event which occurs tomorrow, or next week or next year, or someday in the future, if all goes to plan. Happiness is about appreciating and being grateful for the present. The people we are with today, the things we are enjoying now. As I said about ageing well isn’t all that common. If you are unhappy then that’s your choice (unless of course you have a medical condition, which I’m not qualified to discuss). Take action to spend time with those who make you happy, do things that make you happy. Be happy with the person you are now.

What do you think? Is middle age a time of unhappiness? Leave a comment below.

Happiness is the meaning and the purpose of life, the whole aim and end of human existence.

– Aristotle

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