Can You Be Happy at 30? Damned at 35? Delirious at 40?

Copyrighted by Lorna Tedder. Originally published in Crimes to the Third Degree.

It’s an odd question that surfaces among one of my more social-able writers’ groups. Are people really happy at 30? And what happens to make them sour on life before they turn 40, so much of it stinging them around 33 to 35 years old?

Flying By Night novelWe were talking about editors in NYC, about how most are in their 20’s and don’t understand life away from their Sex and the City mentality of single, no kids, and lots of shoes. One of our favorite new women’s fiction lines to write for was based on women in their late 30’s and early 40’s who are starting over—as many women at this age are—but the editors couldn’t relate to these women and decided that 30, rather than 40, should be the cut-off age for our novels’ protagonists. Yet a woman at age 40 has much different concerns and a much different outlook on life than a woman who’s 25.

“They don’t understand why a woman in her mid-30’s isn’t over her divorce within a few months or done with grieving her husband’s death within a year,” one writer who’d been through both and written about it told me. “They don’t understand the quiet sorrow of realizing that you’ll never have the child you wanted or be the concert pianist you dreamed of.”

We each began to recall where we were at 30, whether we were truly happy (or thought we were), and when things began to change. And we discovered a few things.

At 30, life is full of limitless possibilities. We’ve never hit anything we can’t handle. Often, our careers are just taking root, and we’re married with young families or planning for a young family. We’re in our first home and we still have the illusion of being able to come and go as we please, if we ever have time to. For most of us, we were full of hopes and dreams and possibilities and nothing could stop us.

Then something stopped us. For most of us, something happened in the next few years that knocked us on our asses. We hit the first things in our lives that we couldn’t handle—a physical injury, divorce, aging parents, problems with our children, a lost promotion, a dead-end job, legal problems, financial problems. We medicated ourselves with pills, alcohol, religion, affairs, staying busy, heads in the sand.

So it wasn’t that a happy 30 became an unhappy 40, years later. At some point, most of us reached a point of acceptance. Our relationships were flawed, there would never be another child (or any children at all), the dream career we’d sacrificed for would never be anything more than a nightmare until we changed jobs, we’d always have a physical handicap, our parents were mortal (and often manipulative), and life would never live up to all possibilities we’d imagined, though at times wonderful things would happen that we’d never dreamed of. The biggest problem at 35, most of us agreed, was struggling against the disappointments and dashed hopes and not seeing the sunshine up ahead, that more people loved us than we knew, or accepting that life could indeed be really good, even if it wasn’t exactly as they’d hoped for at 30.

And so most of this group of writers who had passed the age of 35 agreed that they were actually in a different state of mind at 35—and especially at 40 and older—than they had been at their oh-so-happy 30. None felt they were as exuberantly happy as they’d seemed at 30, but many were quite content with themselves, having reached a place of peace after struggling with divorce, death, infertility, troubled children, dashed careers, ailing friendships, and then finding their own inner strength and beauty.

One woman said she’d released all the “infinite possibilities” that had kept her life in a holding pattern in her 20’s and early 30’s, and that now, in her late 50’s, she’s truly happy and just gets happier every day. She also said that other than having a firmer body, she’d never trade 60 for 30.

Always nice to know.