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The U-Ben of Life

January 4, 2011

The U-Bend of Life: Why, beyond middle age, people get happier as they get older

I have been contending for years that in the Second Half of life is the best part of life. My evidence has been my own life and countless anecdotes I encounter through the work of Leadership Network (now in its 27th year) and Halftime. I always worry that I am rowing upstream against a cascade of fear and media buzz, news that older is worse and younger is better.

You can only imagine my delight to see the cover story of the current Economist magazine proclaim that people are happier – continuously happier as they move through Halftime into what I call Life II. The Economist (Dec 18, 2010) calls this welcome contradiction of the common wisdom “The U-Bend of Life.” The headline on the cover reads:

Here is an initial paragraph:

“When people start out on adult life, they are, on average, pretty cheerful. Things go downhill from youth to middle age until they reach a nadir commonly known as the mid-life crisis. So far, so familiar. The surprising part happens after that. Although as people move towards old age they lose things they treasure—vitality, mental sharpness and looks—they also gain what people spend their lives pursuing: happiness.”

It will come as a surprise to some, if not most people, but the new research is not at all at variance with the evidence I confront almost daily in those good Samaritans who are spending their days in a variety of post-success meaningful pursuits “loving their neighbors.”

Man does not live by bread alone

The Economist continues:

“This curious finding has emerged from a new branch of economics that seeks a more satisfactory measure than money of human well-being. Conventional economics uses money as a proxy for utility—the dismal way in which the discipline talks about happiness. But some economists, unconvinced that there is a direct relationship between money and well-being, have decided to go to the nub of the matter and measure happiness itself.”

Pursuing happiness seems to be what I am doing personally these days. It is what I watched Peter and Doris Drucker do the last 25 years of their very productive lives. Doris still plays tennis, at age 98, and travels for The Drucker Institute – to China and Korea!

Right now (New Years Eve), Linda and I are in the midst of a nine-day interlude at Still Point Farm. The name comes from a line in my favorite poem by T.S. Eliot:

“At the still point of the turning world there the dance is. Where past and future are gathered – the inner freedom from the practical desire, the release from action and suffering – release from the inner and outer suffering.”

Last year we seemed to need to spend two weeks in the South of France to celebrate our birthdays. This is better.  I have concluded that these nine days at Still Point are just about the happiest time off we can imagine. The crisp winter mornings are quiet contemplative spaces. There is a pleasant light lunch together. Afternoons are time for a brisk bundled-up walk on an East Texas country “road less traveled.” And, evenings bring a warm fireside and a stimulating batch of high stakes win-or-go-home college and professional football games. I don’t think I could stand full time retirement, but I can sure stand this highly restorative interlude. It is time to let my subconscious do the work.

Gross National Happiness

According to the article that birthed this line of thought, a new branch of Economists measures the concept of Gross National Happiness seeking a more satisfactory measure than accumulated treasure to determine human well being. France and Britain have both commissioned new studies – there is already a lot of data collected by America’s General Social Survey, Eurobarometer, and Gallup on the perennial question, “What makes people happy?”

Four main factors emerge: gender, personality, circumstances and age. “Women, by and large, are slightly happier than men. But they are also slightly more susceptible to depression — considering the age variable, people are least happy in their 40’s and early 50’s. They reach a nadir at a global average of 46.”

Interest in “The U-Bend” is growing. The graphic shown here from a study by professors at Stony Brook and Princeton looks at how self-reported well being varied through life. The effect on happiness is significant.

My experiences with the 450 people who have come to join a circle of ten during the four years I and my colleagues have been holding our Halftime Institutes in Dallas have shown us that human beings in midlife have a longing for significance when they tire of the chase for money, recognition and power. They don’t want to waste themselves away in the Second Half of their lives. And the Halftime transition always involves a shift from accumulation to deployment. You might call it an age and stage based transfer of addiction – from success as a basis for meaning, wealth and security to significance.

For many of the people I know, serving others is a calling, wired into our Spiritual DNA. It is what St. Paul describes in Ephesians 2:10 as a consequence of faith – “good works prepared beforehand for us to walk in.”

I know a lot of people who have made the transition in Halftime from addiction to money, recognition and power to what I call a positive addiction. It is why I will go back to Dallas after the New Year Bowl Games. I have asked many people whether, given the opportunity, they would return to their First Half Life I. Not a single one has said, “Yes, I would.”

There is a season for everything. Apparently people lead happier lives past Halftime. It is nice to know the research supports my observation.

Happy New Year! Happy New Life!

Recommended Resources (more than usual):

Finishing Well: What People Who Really Live Do Differently! Integrity Publishers, 2005. My fourth book. Sixty-two stories of successful First Halfers who have crossed the bridge to significance – and increased happiness.

Halftime Institute (

The Halftime Institute is a small-group event designed for high-capacity individuals who have experienced success in the first half of their lives and now have a desire to pursue eternal significance in their second half.

The highly interactive experience offers both the personal insights of Bob Buford and the input of peers over a focused, two-day period.  By the end of the process, participants create their own powerful second-half life plan.

From Success to Significance: When the Pursuit of Success Isn’t Enough. Zondervan, 2004. By my long time associate, Lloyd Reeb. I call it Halftime for normal people who aren’t rich and don’t have to quit their job.

Ken Blanchard and Colleen Barrett. Lead with LUV: A Different Way to Create Real Success. FT Press; 2010. Ken Blanchard and Colleen Barrett are both great examples of a life well lived in the Second Half. Ken sent me this remarkable book with a note that said, “If I was to leave a legacy right now, it would be this book.” Tom Peters said, “For the committed reader, it will be a truly life altering event.” Woman on a mission is a self-discovery tool and Bible study designed to help women determine and pursue their personal mission. Great course and small group materials. Linda Slaton describes the restlessness and confusion that many women experience but have difficulty defining.

Something to muse on this New Year

On a 1 to 10 scale, what is your well-being score these days? Is it higher or lower than it was twenty years ago?


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