Cheer up, guy. Youre getting older.
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  • Cheer up, guy. You’re getting older.

In a happier world no one would write about happiness because happiness wouldn’t be newsworthy. As things stand it’s a red-hot topic. The latest Atlantic tackles happiness along scientific lines. “The Real Roots of Midlife Crisis,” says the cover. “It’s not what you think—and new research shows you start getting happier at 50.”

Reporter Jonathan Rauch, drawing heavily from his own example, tells us the neural circuits that lead us into and then out of our midlife crises seem to be pretty much hard-wired. We’re at the top of our game in our 40s but with little delight to show for it; yet the subsequent plunge is as big a kick as the steep first dip of a roller coaster. Nailing down the case that happiness arrives on automatic pilot, Rauch reports research that indicates even middle-age apes become happy too.

And the New York Times‘s David Brooks weighed in last Friday on the “now famous U-Curve” that finds us thinking ourselves happy in our 20s, crashing in our 40s, then slowly getting all that lost happiness back with interest. “The people who rate themselves most highly are those ages 82 to 85,” says Brooks.

Brooks thinks biology has a lot less to do with this U-curve than circumstance and experience. The 40s impose stresses that must simply be endured. But teenage children (the example Brooks inevitably cites) grow up and move out, and later life also brings wisdom and perspective. “Most setbacks are not the end of the world,” Brooks writes. “Anxiety is the biggest waste in life.” Eventually we catch on.

A big dose of happiness—as Rauch doesn’t need to be told—comes from holding up your own life as an excellent example. So here’s my own two cents’ worth. Embrace your cohort.

A cohort is a wonderful thing—sort of like the platoon you go through war with, only with a more gradual (if higher) attrition rate. I discovered I was part of a cohort several years ago when I came across a story about a kid from my high school class. He’d been elected chairman of the National Association of Manufacturers.

“We were!” I thought. This reaction amazed me. I’d always had a flair for envy and resentment, yet here I was not merely happy for his success, not merely proud of it, but claiming it as my own. This is what cohorts are good for: one for all, of course, but primarily all for one! Anything good accomplished by anyone in your cohort is something you get to take credit for yourself.

My high school cohort’s produced captains of industry, adventurers who sail the seas in tiny boats, professors, surgeons, men of the cloth, and even—far above and beyond all the foregoing—a winemaker. My life brims with their triumphs though ten years ago they would have eaten me alive. But ten years ago I was still groping toward the golden insight—good for them!

Let me repeat a story told by Studs Terkel. He ran into an old buddy of his we’ll call Eddie, a battle-scarred veteran of the labor wars. And Eddie had a rare bounce in his step. “You’re looking swell,” said Studs, and Eddie glowed. “Ah, Studs,” he said, “I met this dame and it’s been incredible. She’s half my age and I don’t know what she sees in an old fart like me. But Studs, she’s smart and she’s beautiful, she’s got this amazing glow, and she’s full of piss and vinegar. She’s got me doing things and feeling things I haven’t felt in years.” And Studs patted him on the back and said, “Eddie, your life’s been hard and you got it coming. Enjoy every minute!” A few months went by and once again Studs spotted Eddie on the street. He looked sad and lost. And Studs asked him what the matter was and Eddie said, “You remember that dame I told you about? I had to give her her walking papers.” “Jeez, I’m sorry,” said Studs. “You mean she wasn’t what she cracked up to be.” And Eddie said, “That’s not it, Studs, she was fabulous, she was magnificent, she was everything I said she was. But Studs . . . But Studs . . .

She didn’t know the songs.

You get to a point when what matters most about other people is that they know the songs. And who knows the songs better than the handful of people now scattered across the universe who heard those songs for the first time exactly when you did because everybody drove to school down the same streets tuned to the same radio station? You all know the same songs and you all share each other’s glories, as is your right and duty. Because this is the time of life when aside from each other, nobody has any interest in what they were.

It’s roughly the same time of life when, if you find yourself in a pinch, you call your children’s friends who have connections.

And according to the latest research, it’s when you couldn’t be happier.