The Big Dip: We’re rattling towards peak unhappiness from our 30s to late 40s

Maureen Gaffney: At midlife your sense of time flips from ‘time since birth’ to ‘time left’

‘For most of you, the Big Dip is  likely to mean a time-limited period of emotional churn.’ Photograph: Getty

‘For most of you, the Big Dip is likely to mean a time-limited period of emotional churn.’ Photograph: Getty

 

The first sign of impending middle age is not reassuring. You begin to feel low. This takes different forms – a general sense of stress and strain, more worries, a loss of confidence, feeling that it’s going to be hard to deal with any difficulties you have, more problems sleeping, maybe a spike in depression. You are in the Big Dip, when happiness and wellbeing temporarily drop to their lowest level in the life course, outside of advanced old age.

The Big Dip happens around the world, irrespective of the state of the economy or a country’s culture. It happens to men and women, to rich and poor, to those who have children and those who don’t. The timing varies from country to country. In developed economies, where people live longer, midlife and the dip come later than in poorer countries, where both come earlier. In developed countries wellbeing is at its lowest at the age of 48, and, in very prosperous countries, a year earlier.

But, eventually, everybody starts to recover.

It’s like reaching the top of a hill and seeing, for the first time, in the far distance, the end of the road ahead

For one in four of you, the dip does develop into a crisis but, on further probing, that usually happens only when you are also experiencing a setback in your life, such as getting divorced, losing your job, combatting financial or health problems, things that cause distress at any stage of life. For most of you, the Big Dip is more likely to mean a time-limited period of emotional churn.

What triggers the Big Dip? Your first real intimation of mortality. You have an unmistakable sense that you are ageing, moving up the line. The first signs are in your body. Your hair is greying or getting thinner. You notice a few pounds going on. The youthful preening in the mirror gives way to a more appraising scrutiny, the laughter lines look more like wrinkles.

Up to now, you’ve measured time as “time since birth”. As a child, you carefully tracked every movement forward. (“I’m not six. I’m six and a half !”) In your 20s and 30s, you track time in a more immediate way: am I keeping up with my peers or falling behind? But at midlife, your sense of time flips from “time since birth” to “time left”. This awareness of “time left” is different from knowing in a rational way that you, like everybody else, will die eventually. Now, you become aware of this in a very personal, visceral way. You can envisage your own eventual death somewhere down the line, still a long way off but there, immovable. It’s like reaching the top of a hill and seeing, for the first time, in the far distance, the end of the road ahead.

It is necessary to experience this dip, this trigger, so that you are moved to thought, then to action, to plot out the direction of your next stage

And then, the questions start. Is this it? Is this my life, and what exactly have I achieved? Now what?

These questions trigger a period of stocktaking. The Big Dip can feel depressing, but it is also a driver of action. It forces you to review your life so far, where you are and where you thought you’d be at midlife, and also to picture the rest of your life. What do you want the agenda of the second half of your life to be? It is necessary to experience this dip, this trigger, so that you are moved to thought, then to action, to plot out the direction of your next stage.

Like an athlete facing a high jump, this period of stocktaking allows you to pull back in order to gather your resources so that you propel yourself forward with enough momentum – what the French call reculer pour mieux sauter, pulling back so you can make a better jump – in your case, to meet the challenges in the second half of life.

This is an extract from Your One Wild and Precious Life: How to be Happy, Fulfilled and Successful at Every Age by Maureen Gaffney, which is published by Penguin on September 16th. You can pre-order the book here

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
GO BACK
Error Image
The account details entered are not currently associated with an Irish Times subscription. Please subscribe to sign in to comment.
Comment Sign In

Forgot password?
The Irish Times Logo
Thank you
You should receive instructions for resetting your password. When you have reset your password, you can Sign In.
The Irish Times Logo
Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.
Screen Name Selection

Hello

Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
Forgot Password
Please enter your email address so we can send you a link to reset your password.

Sign In

Your Comments
We reserve the right to remove any content at any time from this Community, including without limitation if it violates the Community Standards. We ask that you report content that you in good faith believe violates the above rules by clicking the Flag link next to the offending comment or by filling out this form. New comments are only accepted for 3 days from the date of publication.