The rap on research for the arts, museums, and informal sciences
In the airport with my family over the holidays, I ran into a newsstand to pick up some things for our flight. There on the rack, the cover of The Economist caught my eye: “The joy of growing old (or why life begins at 46).” Being 46 at the moment, of course I bought it.
I thought the article might feature tips relevant to us mid-lifers, like how to prevent your knees from hurting when you hike, or how to remember what you walked into the kitchen for. What I found was something a little bigger-picture, something surprisingly related to my work with colleges and universities.
The not-particularly-happy news about happiness, according to the studies cited in the article, is that, in cultures around the world, people tend to start out happy and get increasingly less so, until they hit a collective rock bottom at age 46. Ouch.
The good news is that, as people continue to age, they report feeling happier and happier until their mid-80s, when (on average) they’re happier than they’ve ever been.
As I stared at the U-shaped chart, pondering all the ways I might feel happier in the future, I realized that I’ve seen this same graph before in our research with alumni.
Alumni tend to stay involved with their school for the first few years after graduation. But then engagement drops, bottoming out with alums in their 40s. It then begins to rise, with greater engagement and positive feelings as they age into retirement.
Common sense and our own research suggest that alums in their 40s are the most time-starved cohort, with jobs, kids, houses, and 401Ks taking up time and energy. So they have less time to devote to life’s optional commitments, like alumni events and class reunions. The Economist article made me wonder how happiness factors into the equation. If you don’t feel particularly good about your life, are you less likely to want to connect with your school and fellow alums? ...
I found myself remembering a woman I met years ago, who once told me that she had quit her job at a prestigious consulting firm just before her Harvard Business School reunion. I asked her why and she replied without irony, “Because I’d rather say I’m a full-time mom than admit I wasn’t on the partner track.”
That may have been a flippant remark, but it makes a sad kind of sense. When we’re not feeling good about life, we often turn inward. The prospect of celebrating our connection to our past—including our alma mater and classmates—isn’t particularly appealing. And that’s not just about attending events; writing a check to the annual fund also depends on that sense of celebration. So engagement and participation fall.
There’s some irony here, though, because it’s possible that being more engaged could actually increase happiness, at least somewhat. Haven’t the social psychologists demonstrated that social connectedness is one of the key determinants of happiness? Wouldn’t reconnecting to a happier, or at least more carefree and social, time in their lives bring a smile to alums in their 40s?
Now that I’m back in the office I plan to craft some new questions to add to our alumni surveys, to try to measure happiness or overall outlook on life so we can see if that influences engagement with the school. Who knows? Maybe we’ll also find ways that alumni programs can help make even us 46 year olds a little happier.
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