The downslope and trough of the happiness curve represent a squeezing out of optimism: a long, slow adjustment toward what psychologists have called depressive realism. We reduce our expectations of our future happiness. Emotionally, we lower our sights and learn to settle. Settling increases our contentment.

Settling? That sounds dreary. It sounds like grudgingly accepting contentment of a diminished and impoverished sort: like resigning ourselves to the abandonment of our youthful dreams and the deflation of our youthful hopes. It sounds like, well, depressive realism. 

Yet depression, deflation, and diminution are not at all what most people experience. Not even close. In my interviews with people who had navigated the transition, I rarely heard notes of disappointment or resignation. I heard that life after the reboot seemed richer, more than compensating for any losses. 

Partly, that must be the result of the psychological changes we saw in the previous chapter: the positivity effect, socioemotional selection, and the rest. Partly, though, it is a function of something Aristotle understood without the benefit of fMRI scans and big data: Wisdom enriches us. It changes our values, not just our knowledge; and in doing so it changes who we are and how we perceive the world.

Jerry Hirsch, who was in his early seventies when we spoke (he let me use his real name), gave an evocative description of the change. He was the chairman of the Lodestar Foundation, a philanthropy in my hometown of Phoenix, Arizona. In the first portion of his career, he had made serious money, building shopping centers. He thought his life was good— until his marriage caved in when he was forty-eight. After divorce came depression, a suicide attempt, hospitalization, and a hard look at his life. “I realized my tombstone would say, ‘Before there was Hirsch, there were 426 Kmarts, and now there are 693 Kmarts.’ Is that what I want my legacy to be? I said no. There has to be something else.” He went back to school, then studied spirituality, “always searching for what would give my life more meaning.” He settled on philanthropy. “I concluded if I wind up helping someone, it would give me more meaning in my life. Coincidentally, the more I helped others, the more it satisfied me. And that’s what I’ve been doing.”

He reported a step change in his life satisfaction: not just a quantitative change, like a higher Cantril rating, but something more fundamental, a change in what the concept of quality of life means to him. In his case, making that step change required a crisis. “I didn’t know about the depth of happiness and satisfaction one could get from these other types of endeavors. I didn’t know there was a deeper level. It took something to tear apart those layers that were covering my core.”

I had heard that word, depth, in one of the first interviews I conducted when I began exploring happiness and age. I was speaking with Karla, a friend who, at age fifty-four, seemed to have safely established herself on the happiness curve’s upswing. When we spoke, Karla’s life satisfaction was high and improving. In her fifties, she told me, she savored more than ever before the friendships she had nurtured over many years. She felt better organized, more efficient. She was doing more work with the neighborhood civic association, and had started volunteering in church. She reported uncovering an additional depth in life, an intangible dimension which had been beyond the ken of her twentysomething self. “It was always striving and looking ahead then, as opposed to being in the now. Now I feel grateful for the now. On a day-to-day basis I probably do the same things, but I feel dif­ferent.”

Just so: same life, yet it feels dif­ferent. And so, of course, it is not the
same life. The river alters the Voyager, not just the scenery. Although the
world beyond the bend in the river looks less exciting without an overlay
of unrealistic optimism, it does not look emptier or narrower. It looks richer
and deeper. That is the beginning of wisdom.

THE HAPPINESS CURVE. Copyright © 2018 by Jonathan Rauch. Reprinted with permission from St. Martin’s Press.