What Does Happiness Look Like?

By: Jen Shoop

I was reading a few weeks ago about the concept of “the happiness u-curve.” Research by Dartmouth Professor David Blanchflower suggests that “Starting at age 18, your happiness level begins to decrease, reaching peak unhappiness at 47.2 in developed countries and 48.2 in developing countries.” The theory is that we re-evaluate our expectations as we go through life, and often find mismatches between them and our evolving reality — but the upside is that tend to grow happier later in life (in our 60s and beyond). The thing is —

A few years ago, I realized that happiness, for me, is not a static condition. I am not a particle that toggles between bands of “happiness” and “unhappiness” and stays put. I experience happiness in small bursts, usually at the hands of something wildly trivial, like the lay of sun on our back porch at four o’clock in the afternoon, the sight of my son’s pudgy, still-babyish fingers on my dress, Mr. Magpie carrying a handful of raspberries in from the garden in the morning, the smell of coffee at the beginning of a slow weekend morning. And so I think I have a different way of thinking about happiness that has little to do with life expectations and everything to do with realizing how impossibly short our lives are and how wonderful it is to experience brief moments of comfort, release, love.

I have noticed that, increasingly, my “slivers of joy” relate to what I can only describe as domesticity, and the broader experience of feeling “settled.” How predictable, I know! But a nontrivial amount of navel-gazing has led me to realize it is true: I am profoundly relieved to be through the ill-lit meanderings of my 20s and 30s, to have found stability in so many domains of my life. I am living in a string of answering years. I write that with trepidation, as I am also aware that life is rarely this good for that long. Still, I am sitting here in a kind of calm, cloistered hammock. The arc of my day-to-day life is pleasantly narrow, and I am grateful for the shade. I find slivers of joy in the smallest things, including the continuous, mindful way I put up my palm against unnecessary insinuations of stress. What I mean by this is that I am widening my margins wherever I can. In the narrowest sense, this looks like putting extra money in the parking meter so I won’t have to even think about rushing back to my car, and calendaring times to sift through the approximately 345 emails I’ve received about my children’s various camps (why, just why, do I need to download individual apps for individual camps?) I punt those prying fingers out of my way and lock them up in a 30 minute window on a day where I have the give in my schedule to accommodate them. I am also saying no to multiple activities in a single day, and blocking off entire afternoons to just spend time with Mr. Magpie — no agenda, no reservations. Just unfettered hours to hang out while a sitter looks after the kids, usually on a Friday afternoon, to avail ourselves of Mr. Magpie’s “summer Fridays” (a blessed vestige from our New York days — his office still practices this distinctly New York City convention, when the city drains of its white collar inhabitants, who head out East). In a broader sense, when I find myself keyed up over some issue or another, I have been liberal in jailbreaking myself: I turn off the computer. I go for a walk. I get my nails done. I ask myself, essentially: “Will this matter tomorrow? In a week? In a month? In a year?” and then I evaluate its severity, and it rarely extends beyond the “matters-in-a-week” bar.

I have also been practicing a Magpie reader re-frame (thank you eternally to the Magpie who shared this, as it actually occurs to me at least a few times a day at this point and completely changes my outlook at multiple points throughout my week), it’s not “I have to do this” but “I get to do this.” Wow! I think of this when I’m running errands, taking my children to an appointment or lesson, going for my run in the morning, sitting at my desk to write. All of these experiences are expressions of incredible good fortune and determination and I am truly the luckiest. Going to the grocery = having the means to do so, and multiple loving family members who lean on me for their nourishment (it is a gift itself to be needed!). Running in the morning = enjoying health and physical ability, having a schedule that permits this indulgence, living in an area that is beautiful to run through. Etc.

I guess what I’m saying is that when I first read about that u-curve concept, a shiver of dread ran through me. “Oh, great. Thanks, Doc. Now I’m on the escalator down to the pit of unhappiness for the next decade, until I turn 47.” But I think I know how to keep myself at the mezzanine. And it has to do with, as I put it elsewhere, “living lilliputian.” Seeking those slivers of joy where you can find them, in the smallest things. Permitting yourself to unfold into them. The stress of today likely won’t matter in a week, month, year, so let me pour myself into what happinesses I can find today.

What do you think?


+My original essay on happiness.

+On being truly happy for friends.

+Serious and beautiful words.

Shopping Break.

+Have been getting a ton of wear out of this Hill House maxi. I have it in the stripe, but love it in the brown floral, too — such an understated-chic piece.

+Guys, can we talk about Emily Henry?! Where have I been living? Underneath a rock?! I am halfway through Happy Place and it is SO enjoyable (narrative mechanics are wildly implausible to the point of absurd but who cares? it’s fantasy of a different color!) and also I have so many thoughts on this genre of writing in general. Ahh! Cannot wait to discuss.

+ICYMI, J. Crew has really cute summer sandals for under $100 that have a classic/elegant bent to them. Love these. And if you’re a trendier gal, these $118 slides have been FLYING.

+I’ve been using these eye masks — had never tried an eye mask before! — and WOW. They legit, legit work. Like, my undereyes literally looked bright and…hard to find the right word, but almost hydrated? Plump? Soft? I can’t describe. Very impressed.

+This “starter pack” of kitchen spices would be such a cute gift for a college graduate moving into his/her first apartment, along with a couple of simple cookbooks.

+The colors in this striped skirt spark joy. Cute with the matching crop top or a solid-colored tank.

+A small desktop pleasure.

+A luxury citronella candle from Diptyque! We also think Thermacell works REALLY well, and will also put up a fan if we’re outside — fans really help keep mosquitoes/bugs away.

+Love these embroidered shorts from Zara.

+Matouk’s scalloped towels come with the cutest trim colors. I love the yellow!

+This $69 dress is giving MAJOR La Ligne vibes. Love it in the red.

+Under-$30 floral everyday dress. Great to throw on when you don’t know where the day will take ya!

+Currently lusting after this tan Tanya Taylor piece! I read a profile in Tanya Taylor in InKind magazine and I’m obsessed with her because of it. She is so ambitious but humble. Love!

+Everyone’s favorite water bottle, in a fun new color for summer.

+Another fitness dress to consider. (Still obsessing over my Lulu one.)

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10 thoughts on “What Does Happiness Look Like?

  1. once again, nodding along over here – i share so many similar feelings around happiness, gratitude, and contentment, especially with the “settled” feeling in recent seasons of life. but – like you! – 10% of me is worried about the scales remaining tipped; i’m too lucky! this life is so abundant, our micro family unit is so fortunate! agh. practicing steering myself back into the present and noticing, with gratitude, all the good that surrounds me, especially when moments of stress, annoyance, and life minutiae appear.

    i’m not sure i can claim the rights, but the “i get to do this” mantra is my decade-long running/workout mindset on days when a little boost is needed! i *think* i shared this on one of your running posts in the past (it got me through my first bout of half marathon training back in 2013), but if not, solidarity with the magpie who carries these words with her too 🙂

    1. It WAS you! Eternally grateful for that. I legitimately repeat it to myself multiple times each day!


  2. As someone turning 47 this year it seems that there is suddenly a lot of loss that is hitting all at one time that my peers and I didn’t experience in my settled mid 30’s and early 40’s. My circle of friends is experiencing divorce, breast cancer, and putting parents in a home. This is at the same time our children that were so dependent upon us for so long are less physically and in some ways emotionally dependent upon us. Our kid’s circles and lives inevitably widen with friends, sports and school in a way it just doesn’t as young children who we narrowly controlled their time. I think there are a lot of professional reckonings as well – success that didn’t come or dreams that just didn’t materialize and well as fatigue and monotony in careers that did turn out well (yet we have been doing for 25+ years). There are also physical changes; your face and body go through real transitions. It is an interesting and challenging time and I can see that U curve making sense… and YET…..I have found my ability to notice and revel in those “delights” and small pleasures to be more finely tuned than ever. I think it is the paradox of life that while experiencing more, hard big things we can find more joy and delight in the small, everyday.

    1. Hi Hillary! I love these reflections. I can imagine that your 40s are a time of massive transition — a new phase of life! Out of “the quarterlife,” as it’s called. I hadn’t thought about the big transition of your children needing less from you physically/emotionally/logistically, but that would certainly take a toll on me.

      I agree with your insight that getting through tough times paradoxically makes you that much more aware of the small, good things. I specifically think that the wilderness of my 20s and earlier 30s paved the way for my ability to notice and grab onto those good, small things that bring me joy. My husband and I were just saying — “Why did we do all of that crazy stuff to ourselves?” Like, switching not only careers but industries multiple times, moving between three big cities, cutting everything just down to the wire in terms of moving, starting three businesses (!). Why!! It was so, so stressful and chaotic. But now I feel like it’s given me a lot of perspective.

      Anyhow, thanks for writing in. I admire your ability to find the joy in the everyday!!


  3. I agree with your viewpoint on this topic. I turned 40 last December and around that time I read an article about aging Millennials approaching and entering their forties, and this is the decade of the highest amount of depression and unhappiness, blah blah blah. Granted, I’m only 6 months in, but I’m loving this new decade so far! I think if you approach life anticipating the worst, you’ll likely get it. But inversely, if you approach it with a more positive outlook, maybe it will be better than you ever imagined? Finding pleasure in the little things can make every day potentially great, instead of always looking toward a milestone or goal to measure happiness.

    PS- I love Emily Henry, though I think Happy Place was my least favorite of hers. Highly recommend Beach Read, followed by Book Lovers. Can’t wait to hear your thoughts on Happy Place!

    1. I agree with you, Amy, on your note that “if you approach life anticipating the worst, you’ll likely get it.” Also, Landon and I were talking yesterday that maybe we’ve already passed our “peak unhappiness” point. I mean, 47 is an average. I would say we were at our most stressed/stretched thin in our early 30s, when we were taking enormous risks and life felt so wildly chaotic. By contrast, life feels so simple now, and we have this perspective informed by the harder years that makes these times feel…wonderful. So perhaps, for some of us, the unhappiest parts of life came early? I don’t know! Just further food for thought…

      Thanks for the notes on Emily Henry! I know a lot of Magpies agree with you on Book Lovers/Beach Read as her best work!


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