Before this year, the only birthday that ever caused me to freak out was my 26th. I was finishing an internship in Washington, gearing up to return to graduate school after a year away. A colleague wished me a happy birthday and then said, “So now you’re closer to 30 than you are to 20.” That hit me WAY harder than my friend intended. I spiralled into a panic about how I was unattached and hadn’t even started my dissertation yet, and, oh, dear God, would I even get a PhD or a job, or any of my material or emotional wants?!
Fortunately, things improved rather quickly across most facets of my life (not that they had been all that bad before). By the time I was 30, I was a married assistant professor who owned stuff. And since year 26, my birthdays have not triggered real anxiety.
Until this month, when I turned 50.
The God of Very Important Numbers would have ensured that this is a milestone birthday. Events in my life, however, larded on a few extra layers of symbolism. In the past year, I suffered my first chronic injury. In the past month, I received my first (very minor) cancer diagnosis and had surgery to correct the problem. In the same week I turned 50, I packed one child up for college. Next week, my younger one starts high school. To be honest, I think my life’s screenwriter has gotten tired and decided to be less subtle than a Spike Lee film. The point is, any attempt I could have made to minimise this birthday got thwarted by the many exclamation points declaring a new chapter in my life.
Despite all of that, I find myself surprisingly unperturbed about entering my 50s. The thing about having a few minor health scares is that it makes one appreciate that things could be much, much worse. Fortunately, my chronic injury does not translate into chronic pain. I am still quite active in my daily life. My hair has the age-appropriate amount of salt to go with the pepper.
My children are growing up? To quote the immortal words of Mike Heck, “That’s the way it’s supposed to be.” After many years of parenting — by which I mean, following my spouse’s wiser words — they are starting to make their way in the world. Sure, there is a touch of melancholy at seeing them so independent, but that is vastly outweighed by the pride I feel at that same independence.
Jonathan Rauch’s The Happiness Curve: Why Life Gets Better After 50 might be one reason this birthday did not freak me out. Rather, the psychological phenomena that Rauch describes in his book might be the reason. His basic argument, culled from decades of happiness research, is that people hit a trough in their 40s because they were too optimistic in their 20s and get bummed when expectations are not met. Paradoxically, people are happier after 50 because they expect far less and are therefore surprised when things turn out better than expected.
I have been blessed enough in my 40s to miss most of that trough, so maybe it will come now. I am still immature enough to care about the grey in my hair. On the other hand, I have the self-knowledge to know that this is a silly thing to care about. My gift to the world on my 50th birthday is that I will not add another book about an affluent guy hitting middle age to the pile.
When my son was little, he loved to use the Nintendo Wii, not so much to play games but to create Miis. He created two senior citizens, whom he dubbed “Oldo” and “Olda.” At the time, I chuckled at the names, thinking how far away those days seemed.
It is safe to say that I am closer to being Oldo than I used to be. It is also safe to say that this does not vex me as much as I thought it would have when I was 40. Perhaps that is something approaching wisdom.
Daniel W. Drezner is a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.