The state of happiness
Gores and ‘Sex’: Differing views about reaching our destinations
WHEN NEWS broke about a Gallup survey suggesting that happiness increases with age, I couldn’t help but think about Al and Tipper Gore.
Their separation, after 40 years of marriage, is startling and sad; the news upended many people’s faith in the binding power of a long and public kiss. But the split also conjures the image of a man who passed through his midlife crisis and came out redefined: free of presidential aspirations, grasping a Nobel prize, traveling the country, finding his bliss. And a wife who always kept her own identity, whether railing against rap songs or taking photographs.
The Gores are 62 and 61, well into the stage of life when Gallup tells us that bliss is attainable. The poll, which surveyed 340,000 Americans in 2008, found that self-satisfaction starts dropping at 18, hits a low at 50, then steadily climbs. Eighty-five-year-olds are quite pleased with themselves. Forty-somethings are relatively miserable. And the results didn’t seem to vary based on gender, employment, relationship status, or kids in the house.
In the office, we mused about reasons why, and a colleague came up with an intriguing theory: Your 20s, 30s, and 40s are part of striving, the struggle, the journey, the climb. By the time you’re reached 50, you’ve likely arrived at your ultimate station in life. You’re rich, you’re middle class, you’re president, you’re not. You start enjoying what you have on its own terms.
In other words, platitudes and pop songs notwithstanding, it’s the destination — not the journey — that gives you satisfaction. (Wasn’t that the point of the “Lost’’ ending, too? All that talk about an island and time travel and black smoke, and the series was really about what happens when you’re dead.)
Maybe that’s a reason those “Sex and the City 2’’ women are making viewers and movie critics so entertainingly mad. Through a TV series and movie number one, we could connect to their struggles as 30- and 40-somethings in New York, figuring out who they were so they could figure out whom — if anyone — they wanted to marry. We connected to their efforts to build careers, manage biological clocks, navigate difficult men.
And then time passed. They made their matches, got their rings, reached their destinations. By sequel time, their once-dangerous men had grown domesticated, passive, and supportive beyond reason. And four women who felt universal when they strived now look odious, vapid, and overprivileged.
Seriously, they could have made a buddy movie about Tiger Woods, Jesse James, John Edwards, and the head of BP and found a more relatable bunch than this: A mother with no job and a full-time nanny who whines about how hard life is with kids. A go-go-girl who flips when her husband decides that, a couple nights a week, he wants to get Japanese take-out and snuggle in bed.
For plenty of us, that sounds like aspiration, life whittled down to unconditional love and tiny, manageable conflicts. Try to wrest big drama out of general satisfaction and you risk insulting your audience. Happiness is boring and better kept quiet.
That’s why there’s better drama in the story of the Gores, the mystery of how an aspiration could unravel. The talking heads have been opining about empty-nest syndrome and new-career-itis, the stages of marriage, and the need for new, shared challenges when each big obstacle ends.
It’s all speculation, but it’s no secret why we care; Al Gore represents one of modern history’s most interesting semi-tragic figures, a man who battled disappointment on the biggest possible stage, whose struggles often seemed to bring him down. Tipper stood by him, yet still remained the rare sort of political wife who maintained a voice of her own.
Then politics ended. She took pictures and took up causes. He dusted off his environmentalist’s suit and became a star. Separately, it seems, they reached their destinations. And apparently decided they’d be happier there alone.
Correction: In Tuesday’s column about autism research, I incorrectly identified aluminum as a heavy metal. It is a light metal, though Northeastern professor Richard Deth says his research shows that it behaves similarly to heavy metals in neural cells.
Joanna Weiss can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.