If you could freeze time and live the rest of your life at any age, what age would you choose?
Would you be a responsibility-free kid? Experience the dazzle and agony of your teenage years over and over again for decades? Or would you like to be 20-something again with the world as your oyster (and your monthly budget an impossible puzzle)?
Whatever age you chose, chances are excellent you'll be surprised by the most commonly picked age in a recent poll of 2,000 American adults: 36.
Does adulthood get a bum rap?
First off, 36 isn't exactly a glamorous age. Picture a 36-year-old and you're more likely to imagine baby vomit or a frantic commute than you are toned bodies, exotic adventures, or relaxing days on the golf course. We all recognize your 30s and 40s are productive and consequential years -- this is generally your peak child rearing and earning period -- but for this reason they're generally also viewed as more stressful than joyful.
The surprise survey results suggest there's something missing in the popular conception of adulthood, and Clare Mehta agrees. A psychologist at Emmanuel College, Mehta studies a period from ages 30-45 that she dubs "established adulthood," interviewing and surveying those experiencing this busy life stage.
"We went into this large-scale project expecting to find that established adults were happy but struggling. We thought there would be rewards during this period of life -- perhaps being settled in career, family, and friendships, or peaking physically and cognitively -- but also some significant challenges," she wrote on The Conversation recently.
"Yet when we started to look at our data, what we found surprised us," she reports. "Yes, people were feeling overwhelmed and talked about having too much to do in too little time. But they also talked about feeling profoundly satisfied. All of these things that were bringing them stress were also bringing them joy."
Many adults Mehta and her colleagues talked to reported feeling "at their peak" both personally and professionally as they experienced the payoff for years of hard work. They also looked back on their tumultuous 20s with less nostalgia than relief they were over (I personally can relate). These positive feelings, Mehta notes, don't apply to everyone. Those who are truly struggling in their lives may simply feel more exhausted and disillusioned as they grow older.
Rethinking aging and happiness
Mehta's results suggest that adulthood gets a bit of a bum rap (and that your 20s get excellent if misleading PR). They certainly suggest that those of us lucky to experience "established adulthood" as a joy shouldn't worry quite so much that we're a little bit corny to love the day-to-day grind of bedtime stories and yet another meeting.
But this finding also reminded me of comments by Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman, who said most people don't actually chase happiness. It sounds insane at first, but Kahneman explains that the majority of people value a sense of meaning and accomplishment more than they enjoy the pleasure of a great night out or a Insta-worthy vacation. When these two goals conflict -- and they often do -- life satisfaction trumps momentary happiness.
And if your 30s give you anything (at least if things are going well), it's a sense of satisfaction. So take this survey and Mehta's research as permission to go ahead and lean into the joy of dad jokes and soccer practice and another hectic deadline. Sure, regret and disappointment, terror and wrinkles, are part of middle age. But so are moments of profound satisfaction. We rarely confess it to one another, but for a lot of lucky folks there is huge happiness in the grind of adulthood. Perhaps more of us should say it out loud.