No more midlife crisis – I’m riding the U-curve of happiness

Evidence shows people become happier in their fifties, but achieving that takes some soul-searching

I used not to believe in the “midlife crisis”. I am ashamed to say that I thought it was a convenient excuse for self-indulgent behaviour — such as splurging on a Lamborghini or getting buttock implants. So I wasn’t even aware that I was having one until earlier this year, when my family complained that I had become miserable to be around. I didn’t shout or take to my bed, but five minutes in my company was a real downer. The closer I got to my 50th birthday, the more I radiated dissatisfaction.

Can you be simultaneously contented and discontented? The answer is yes. Surveys of “national wellbeing” in several countries, including the UK, by the Office for National Statistics have revealed a fascinating U-curve in relation to happiness and age. In Britain, feelings of stress and anxiety appear to peak at 49 and subsequently fade as the years increase. Interestingly, a 2012 study showed that chimpanzees and orang-utans exhibited a similar U-curve of happiness as they reach middle age.

On a rational level, I wasn’t the least bit disappointed with my life. The troika of family, work and friends made me very happy. And yet something was eating away at my peace of mind. I regarded myself as a failure — not in terms of work but as a human being. Learning that I wasn’t alone in my daily acid bath of gloom didn’t change anything.

One of F Scott Fitzgerald’s most memorable lines is: “There are no second acts in American lives.” It’s so often quoted that it’s achieved the status of a truism. It’s often taken to be an ironic commentary on how Americans, particularly men, are so frightened of failure that they cling to the fiction that life is a perpetual first act. As I thought about the line in relation to my own life, Fitzgerald’s meaning seemed clear. First acts are about actions and opportunities. There is hope, possibility and redemption. Second acts are about reactions and consequences.

Old habits die hard, however. I couldn’t help conducting a little research into Fitzgerald’s life. What was the author of The Great Gatsby really thinking when he wrote the line? Would it even matter?

The answer turned out to be complicated. As far as the quotation goes, Fitzgerald actually wrote the reverse. The line appears in a 1935 essay entitled My Lost City, about his relationship with New York: “I once thought that there were no second acts in American lives, but there was certainly to be a second act to New York’s boom days.”

It reappeared in the notes for his Hollywood novel, The Love of the Last Tycoon, which was half finished when he died in 1940, aged 44. Whatever he had planned for his characters, the book was certainly meant to have been Fitzgerald’s literary comeback — his second act — after a decade of drunken missteps, declining book sales and failed film projects.

Fitzgerald may not have subscribed to the “It’s never too late to be what you might have been” school of thought, but he wasn’t blind to reality. Of course he believed in second acts. The world is full of middle-aged people who successfully reinvented themselves a second or even third time. The mercurial rise of Emperor Claudius (10BC to AD54) is one of the earliest historical examples of the true “second act”.

According to Suetonius, Claudius’s physical infirmities had made him the butt of scorn among his powerful family. But his lowly status saved him after the assassination of his nephew, Caligula. The plotters found the 56-year-old Claudius cowering behind a curtain. On the spur of the moment, instead of killing him, as they did Caligula’s wife and daughter, the plotters decided the stumbling and stuttering scion of the Julio-Claudian dynasty could be turned into a puppet emperor. It was a grave miscalculation. Claudius seized on his changed circumstances. The bumbling persona was dropped and, although flawed, he became a forceful and innovative ruler.

Mostly, however, it isn’t a single event that shapes life after 50 but the willingness to stay the course long after the world has turned away. It’s extraordinary how the granting of extra time can turn tragedy into triumph. In his heyday, General Mikhail Kutuzov was hailed as Russia’s greatest military leader. But by 1800 the 55-year-old was prematurely aged. Stiff-limbed, bloated and blind in one eye, Kutuzov looked more suited to play the role of the buffoon than the great general. He was Alexander I’s last choice to lead the Russian forces at the Battle of Austerlitz in 1805, but was the first to be blamed for the army’s defeat.

Kutuzov was relegated to the sidelines after Austerlitz. He remained under official disfavour until Napoleon’s army was halfway to Moscow in 1812. Only then, with the army and the aristocracy begging for his recall, did the tsar agree to his reappointment. Thus, in Russia’s hour of need it ended up being Kutuzov, the disgraced general, who saved the country.

Winston Churchill had a similar apotheosis in the Second World War. For most of the 1930s he was considered a political has-been by friends and foes alike. His elevation to prime minister in 1940 at the age of 65 changed all that, of course. But had it not been for the extraordinary circumstances created by the war, Robert Rhodes James’s Churchill: A Study in Failure, 1900-1939 would have been the epitaph rather than the prelude to the greatest chapter in his life.

It isn’t just generals and politicians who can benefit from second acts. For writers and artists, particularly women, middle age can be extremely liberating. The Booker prize-winning novelist Penelope Fitzgerald published her first book at 59 after a lifetime of teaching while supporting her children and alcoholic husband. Thereafter she wrote at a furious pace, producing nine novels and three biographies before she died at 83.

I could stop right now and end with a celebratory quote from Morituri Salutamus by the American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow: “For age is opportunity no less/ than youth itself, though in another dress, / And as the evening twilight fades away / The sky is filled with stars, invisible by day.”

However, that isn’t — and wasn’t — what was troubling me in the first place. I don’t think the existential anxieties of middle age are caused or cured by our careers. Sure, I could distract myself with happy thoughts about a second act where I become someone who can write a book a year rather than one a decade. But that would still leave the problem of the flesh-and-blood person I had become in reality. What to think of her? It finally dawned on me that this had been my fear all along: it doesn’t matter which act I am in; I am still me.

My funk lifted once the big day rolled around. I suspect that joining a gym and going on a regular basis had a great deal to do with it. But I had also learnt something valuable during these past few months. Worrying about who you thought you would be or what you might have been fills a void but leaves little space for anything else. It’s coming to terms with who you are right now that really matters.


“Wrong kind of feminist, right kind of candidate” – The Sunday Times

Hillary Clinton was greeted with cheers in California last week but after 20 years as a political insider she has been struggling to connect with younger voters REUTERS

Hillary Clinton was greeted with cheers in California last week but after 20 years as a political insider she has been struggling to connect with younger voters

Some revolutions happen in an explosion of blood and violence; these are the ones that people remember. Others take place with a stroke of a pen, the pull of a lever, a collective shout of “Aye”; these are the ones that work.

By becoming the presumptive Democratic nominee for president last week, Hillary Clinton once again proved it is the quiet revolutions that matter most. She has gone further than any other American woman before her, and she did it by using rather than abusing the democratic process.

Clinton is writing a new chapter of US history. Whatever happens in the election — and I am absolutely confident she will win against Donald Trump — America has entered a new era of gender equality. The “highest and hardest” glass ceiling — the one with 18m cracks in 2008 — has at last been shattered.

So why are millions of women not taking to the streets to celebrate her victory? The answer is as simple as it is ironic: Clinton is a victim of her own success. Continue reading…

‘Google is strip-mining the world’s culture’ – The Sunday Times

Amanda Foreman says the tech giants are making themselves above the law (Max Nash)

Amanda Foreman says the tech giants are making themselves above the law (Max Nash)

Unequal battles are worth fighting when the principles at stake are high enough. That’s the message put out by the small consortium of American plaintiffs who have recently filed a petition with the US Supreme Court.

The suit asks that Google be required to pay for the content it acquires. By “pay” I mean actually pay money, in the way that John Lewis pays suppliers for the products it sells, or Sainsbury’s, or any retail business in the real world. It’s only the online world that sees no difference between stealing and sharing, and believes that being a blood-sucking parasite is a virtuous form of extortion because nobody dies. At least not immediately.

The consortium consists of professional bodies that represent writers, musicians, artists and photographers, the people most vulnerable to loss of copyright control. Google has already won the case in the Court of Appeals, so this is a last-ditch attempt to update for the digital age the laws on the “fair use” of people’s work — meaning how much of a person’s work can be used or reproduced without their permission. Continue reading…

‘America’s blind political class has nurtured the homegrown terrorists’ – The Sunday Times

America’s blind political class has nurtured the homegrown terrorists

Photo: Gage Skidmore

THE term “American exceptionalism” took on a bleak cast last week. A shooting at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado that left three people dead and nine injured was swiftly followed by the massacre of 14 local health department workers in San Bernardino, California.

Given how many mass shooting incidents there have been this year — 353 and counting — politicians couldn’t avoid saying something about America and gun violence. In truth, mass shootings account for less than 5% of all gun homicides a year. But it is the assumption that the percentage is far higher that fuelled the outpouring of statements by Republican and Democratic presidential candidates on the merits of gun control.

There is a great deal to be said about the consequences of mass gun ownership. According to the Brady Foundation, almost 90 Americans die from gunshot wounds every day. The Republican contenders are against further restrictions, the Democrats are for, with Hillary Clinton intent on making a crackdown on firearms one of the defining platforms of her campaign. Continue reading…

‘America must mend its marriage before thoughts turn to divorce’ – The Sunday Times

Robert Cohen, St. Louis Post-Dispatch/AP

Robert Cohen, St. Louis Post-Dispatch/AP

A quick way of assessing the emotional dysfunction of a family is seeing how often its members resort to “blamestorming”. The term (an American invention) refers to meetings at which everyone complains while offloading all responsibility on to someone else. The US is in the middle of a giant blamestorm right now over race, crime and policing.

Depending on which side you’re on, the police are either wilfully murdering black males or are the victims of social persecution. Meanwhile, after reaching historic lows, the crime rate is increasing again: murders are up 19% in Chicago, 33% in New Orleans, 56% in Baltimore and 60% in St Louis over the past year.

Some experts say the two issues are linked, calling the phenomenon the “Ferguson effect”, after the uproar in Ferguson, Missouri, following the fatal police shooting last year of an African-American man named Michael Brown. Continue reading…

‘A view from afar: Tinderella’s hollow victory – rising above men yet more at their mercy’ – The Sunday Times

Photo: Startup Stock Photos

Photo: Startup Stock Photos

The first words I say in The Ascent of Woman are: “There has never been a better time to have been born a woman.” I believe this to be true in aggregate and in particular for women in America. By every measurement we are either gaining on or are ahead of men. Since 2011 women have made up half the American workforce and the majority of the country’s graduates. But if we are getting our cake at last, guess what: we aren’t eating it, too.

When I was growing up, the message was that girls can do anything that boys can — and probably better. I don’t think it was meant to be a prophecy but it’s rather turned out that way. In America today the average undergraduate ratio is 57% women to 43% men. That’s the average, mind you. In some places it’s even worse. At Sarah Lawrence College, where I was a student, it’s more like 70-30.

Outside universities the gender gap isn’t much better. Among young adults with degrees there are five women for every four men. In some cities such as San Francisco, which is full of computer geeks and engineers, the imbalance is hardly noticeable. But others have turned into man deserts, especially for female graduates between the ages of 25 and 34.

Continue reading…

‘Pick of the day: The Ascent of Woman’ – The Sunday Times

Photo: Amanda Foreman

Photo: Amanda Foreman

The Ascent of Woman (BBC2, 9pm) 

The historian and biographer Dr Amanda Foreman really does want to rewrite history. In this series she sets out to show that a story of the world that excludes women “is an untruth that must be challenged.” In this first episode, titled Civilisation, her case studies include an Anatolian statue of a fleshy mother goddess, the Sumerian poet Enheduanna, who became the first author to be known by name, and the “ice maiden” preserved on the Russian steppe.

It is depressing, however, to see how quickly societies became obsessed with controlling women: the first law on veiling was written in Assyria 3,000 years ago; and it is hard to detect any female voices in ancient Athens because women, considered to be “imperfect”, were silenced. It is a serious look at a serious subject, its only gimmick a smart one: speaking to modern women from these grand civilisations about their feelings on the past and present.

‘Women’s equality dream comes true – 8,000 years ago’ – The Sunday Times

Photo: The Sunday Times

Photo: The Sunday Times

As a graduate student at Oxford I remember writing a throwaway sentence about Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, being a dilettante much addicted to “unhelpful dabbling” in politics. That was the standard line on her then: rich, pretty, oversexed, undereducated and willing to trade kisses for votes on behalf of the Whig party. Naturally such a person was unworthy of any serious study, especially anything to do with politics or power. If I’m honest, I think I was rather embarrassed by her. Georgiana seemed to be the kind of woman who confirmed every male prejudice about our fitness for public life.

I never questioned my own opinions until I was deep into my PhD thesis on attitudes to race in 18th-century England. I was interested in learning more about Earl Grey, the prime minister who as a young man in 1806 had proposed a motion to abolish the slave trade. While delving into his life I discovered his affair with Georgiana and her private letters about it.


The first time I read them it was like having a bucket of cold water thrown over my head. It was immediately apparent that everything I thought I knew about her was false. Worse, it was a vicious caricature of a brilliant, effective and tragic woman. I realised I had inadvertently colluded in the trashing of her reputation.

Continue reading…

‘The Ascent of Woman’ – Saturday Review | The Sunday Times

The Ascent of Woman

BBC Two, 9pm

There has never been a better time to be born a woman, says Dr Amanda Foreman. There are more female heads of government and more women running organisations today than at any time in history. It’s far from perfect, but it’s better than it was. In this fascinating series, she traces the ascent of women from ancient Mesopotamia to the present day, and asks why history became almost exclusively male, why almost every civilisation set limits on women’s sexuality, speech and freedom of movement, and why the status of women is so vulnerable to the dictates of politics, economics and religion. If you judge a civilisation by the way women were treated, she says, the ancient Greeks were as bad as the Taliban.

‘America or Britain? It’s a tough choice for a mother to make’ – The Sunday Times

Photo: Krzysztof Puszczyński

Photo: Krzysztof Puszczyński

Some people need to recreate on the outside the loneliness and alienation that they feel within. The Italian novelist Italo Calvino put it quite succinctly: “The ideal place for me is the one in which it is most natural to live as a foreigner.”

That isn’t how I feel, even though I have spent all my life in the twilight of belonging. I am, to my core, an Anglo-American, neither wholly one identity nor wholly the other. I suppose you could call me a rootless cosmopolitan. Yet I have always felt the opposite. Being the “foreigner” in every place I’ve lived has made me love the two countries I call home all the more. I think that’s what originally led me to study history. As a child, floating somewhere between California and Dorset, I saw difference and similarity in a wholly different light from my peers. Nothing was completely familiar, and yet nothing was entirely foreign, either. As Rudyard Kipling wrote: “What do they of England know who only England know?”

Now that I have children of my own, I have had to think about this very deeply. Do I want them to be British, American or a hybrid like me? The decision goes beyond the question of which passport to have. Where they live and go to school will become the mould that produces the fully formed adult.

Continue reading…