I just learned about the U-curve — the basic psychological insight that most people get happier around age 50.
Judging from a variety of survey data from multiple cultures, people tend to be happy in their 20s and early 30s before hitting a less-happy trough in their late 30s and 40s, then returning to happiness in their early 50s. The line graph for this looks like a “U” stretched out on both sides, or, if you prefer, like a smile.
The predominant explanation seems to be that when we are young, we are ambitious and optimistic.
We feel good physically and have our lives in front of us. By our 40s, we start to worry about things we have not done yet, stymied by the realization “this” might be all there is. But by our early 50s we move on toward thinking “this” is not so bad after all.
At 54, I’ll admit my own experience seems to fit the pattern. I have less energy, my career has likely plateaued, and my parents will probably soon need closer care, but I still feel more satisfied. Is this because I got enough of what I desired? Or is it, perhaps, because I stopped desiring so much, or at least started desiring different things?
I teach comparative religion, so I know who spoke most clearly about satisfaction and desire. The Buddha taught these Four Noble Truths:
- Life is dissatisfying.
- Dissatisfaction is caused by desire.
- Dissatisfaction will end only when the desires are extinguished.
- The way to extinguish desires is to follow spiritual discipline. (For the Buddha, spiritual discipline meant the Eightfold Path).
I’m not kidding anybody: I have not extinguished all my desires. And I do not have much spiritual discipline. But maybe life is adjusting my desires whether I asked for it or not.
Thought experiment: You are single. You’re eager for a sociable night out on the town. You step into a bar full of attractive people. You:
— See a hot someone across the room and think, I want to be all over him/her.
— See a hot someone across the room and think, I want him/her to think I am so appealing that they just want to be all over me.
Which one is lust?
The lust I heard about in church only ever dwelt on the first train of thought. This lust was an overwhelming desire for someone else, to the point of obsession, objectification, or infidelity. It was dirty, aggressive, mulled over in accountability groups and discussed in sermons of marriage and singleness. ... I didn’t relate to it at all.
In conversation with other close Christian women, I learned they didn’t really relate to it, either. We didn’t treat men or other women as objects of desire. We had hormones, sure, but they were … different. Sometimes we saw men as actively desirable, but not necessarily. We usually just wanted men to want us.
Sometimes we wanted them to want us really, really badly.
Sometimes we needed them to want us. Sometimes that was the only thing we could think about. Sometimes we’d fall into a prolonged pout if men who OBVIOUSLY SHOULD WANT US because we were HOT AND AWESOME, in fact, didn’t.
... Oh. Hmmm.
Is it possible that lust works in multiple ways? Is it possible that the all-consuming desire to be desired is just as lustful as the all-consuming desire to have?
[Editors' note: Rev. John Stott, one of the world's most influential evangelical figures over the past half-century, died this Wednesday at age 90. Rev. Stott served as a contributing editor for Sojourners magazine, when we were known as The Post American, and wrote this article for the November/December, 1973 issue of the magazine. We will always remember Rev. Stott for his profound contributions to our community and the Church.]
It seems to be a characteristic of the Anglo-Saxon mind to enjoy inhabiting the "polar regions" of truth. If we could straddle both poles simultaneously, we would exhibit a healthy balance. Instead, we tend to "polarize". We push some of our brothers to one pole, while keeping the other as our own preserve.
What I am thinking of now is not so much questions of theology as questions of temperament, and in particular the tension between the "conservative" and the "radical."