12/10/2014 11:08 am ET Updated Feb 09, 2015

Why I Love Birthdays


My son turns 21 this Saturday, and I think that he's really happy that he'll be able to go to a bar this Friday night at 12:01 (when it's officially Saturday) and order his first alcoholic beverage legally with his real ID.

But I am going to be happier. That's according to a quick look at a few happiness studies. For the most part, the results yield a U curve, which means that if you track your emotions and age, it comes out like a skateboard park. Starts high, swoops down and rebounds back up. You are, according to the research, at your lowest in your mid 40s, but the good news is that it only gets better from there. For those of us who have not reached our euphoric 80s, the news is, well, happy. Or as Robert Samuelson suggested in yesterday's Washington Post, if you aren't satisfied, just wait. Chances are you'll get older. And not only wiser, but more chipper. Samuelson was writing about his friend Jonathan Rauche's cover story in The Atlantic, which explores the happiness U.

What that means for my son and for me is that while he may have a bigger celebration on his 21st birthday this Saturday (partying with friends) compared to my festivities on my 52nd birthday this Wednesday (dinner at home with my husband and 14-year-old daughter), I am on an upward trend and he is on the downhill.

The weird thing about all this is that emerging neuroscience has also shown that our frontal lobes don't finish developing until we are about 25. So if you put the studies side-by-side, we are getting sadder about the same time as we have the ability to understand the consequences of our actions.

I haven't analyzed any of these scientific investigations for statistical validity. But you can't help but notice, that an underlying theme is that we are at our worst when we are in our childrearing years. And that made me wonder whether our alleged unhappiness is really not so much about our true state of well being as about how we responded to the survey questions. I loved having little rambunctious kids around the house. But if on a typical afternoon, when one kid was having a tantrum and another just spilled the cake batter all over and the dog needed to get out urgently, I wouldn't have been a happy respondent. I may have even sounded really curmudgeonly about my happy life.

And yet, I can appreciate the notion of a happiness/old age thing. According to my own study, albeit small (just me) followed for many years (nearly 52), my findings confirm their prior speculation. When I was, say 35ish, I think I had a running tally of everyone who was more successful, more together than I was. How did they do it all? I constantly felt as if I should me writing more, exercising more, spending more time with my kids, doing more of something. I wasn't trying to get rich or famous, but to achieve whatever an elusive fulfilled life should be. Funny thing is that I was surrounded with lots of friends, I was happily married, had four healthy kids and my work was going well. Not superstar well, but well enough. Still, the ongoing topic of conversation among my girlfriends was always the same: pondering how we could do better. Somehow we weren't living up to our own ridiculous self-imposed expectations. If we were working full-time, we weren't spending enough time with the kids. And vice versa. If outward appearances suggested we were found a balance, deep down, we confided to each other we suspected that something was slipping through the cracks, either at home or at the office.

So even before my inbox filled with news stories of the latest happiness studies, I was already aware that I was starting to feel more content. That I was on the upswing of the skateboard park. I hadn't won any awards and my kids hadn't expressed any newfound appreciation of my maternal services. I thought I was happier because I was just too exhausted to criticize myself so much. When I talked to my friends, we seemed to agree that we were thrilled to be done with the 40s and onto the 50s, wrinkles and all (well, minus a few menopausal symptoms).

To be sure, I'm not wandering through life in some kind of wonderfully happy fog. There are some days that are happier than others. But, as the studies suggest, I'm a little more accepting of me as me. Maybe I'll be even more accepting when I'm 65, as the University of Chicago survey suggests. So my 52nd birthday -- 24 hours from now -- I already know that the best birthday gift of all will be knowing that for me and all of my aging friends, it's only going to get better.