By Sgt. Joshua Browne, M.P.S.
My Paradoxical Dissatisfaction Conundrum:
As I progressed through my thirties and now into my forties, I could not conjure a satisfactory explanation for the disparity between my positive objective reality and my internal discord, manifested in general dissatisfaction for the current state of my life. My marriage and family life were thriving, and I felt gratitude for the abundance permeating my existence. I was growing professionally, academically and personally and I could formulate a concrete list of achievement in all these realms. While I could appreciate the bounty I was experiencing, including meaningful experiences assisting others in their pursuit of achievement, in quiet moments, I felt haunted by a pervasive feeling of dissatisfaction. Further exasperating the situation, attempting to reconcile this ubiquitous sensation with my blessed life, left me suffering with guilt. Why couldn’t I simply be grateful for my good fortune and dismiss my discontent?
Depending on your age, you may already relate to what I have described, but if not, I am confident the concepts I will discuss will be relevant to your future life. I have found two fascinating and closely related phenomena; that when combined, not only explain our common experience, but also offer hope for overcoming our pervasive discontent and eventually realizing the satisfaction we crave. For most who possess a driving need for high achievement, the tendency to search for the next goal, regardless of previous or current accomplishment, explains some of this discontentment (Achor, 2010). However, the following account of a friend’s experience, demonstrates the convergence of the happiness or U curve and the late bloomer construct, providing both an anecdotal and practical illustration of the success and life satisfaction that awaits us as we age. Equally exciting, many of the qualities and circumstances necessary for both late success and life satisfaction are scientifically and empirically demonstrable, as we will discuss later in this article.
Dave’s Satisfaction Dissent, Climb and Peaceful Resolution:
A few months ago, I began a conversation with Dave Prestwich at a neighborhood barbeque. It had been several weeks since I had run into him and I was eager to catch up. I knew he had been running a business he created several years prior, but I was not familiar with the details of his venture. I asked Dave to explain his business and while his business model was intriguing, I was more interested in his professional and personal journey that led him to an exceptionally satisfying life, after years of struggle. I asked Dave to elaborate on his journey from years of struggle to exceptional business success in his early fifties. Dave’s story mirrored the components of the convergence of the happiness curve and the late boomer experience, two concepts I will explain later in this article. As Dave began relating his experience, I was elated to hear his account that demonstrated the conjunction of these two principles.
Recently, I was able to connect with Dave again at his home, where he was hosting a New Year’s Eve party. This allowed me to obtain his permission to identify him in this article and ask a few clarifying questions, in the context of the two topics we are exploring. As Dave spoke, his jovial personality shined and I felt joy, not only for Dave’s good fortune, but for the rising levels of life satisfaction most of us will experience, as we enter our fifties and beyond. I could not help but provide Dave a synopsis of these two encouraging and comforting principles, hoping this information would provide context to his experience and allow him to offer hope to others.
I asked Dave to explain what had led him to create his exceptionally successful business that provided a remarkably comfortable and stable life for his family, in contrast to what he had experienced in his twenties, thirties and even forties, where he had a tumultuous professional experience, with a mixture of successes and failures. Dave’s descriptions of himself identified him as a late bloomer in every sense of the term. His pathway has been the antithesis of the prodigy who identified a dream early in life and pursued it in a linear fashion, leading to early success. He struggled to identify a career path that would properly utilize his skill set, align with his interests and allow him to consistently provide for his family.
In his late twenties, he shifted his professional focus to the insurance industry, working as a claims adjuster for a large and recognizable cooperation. While he enjoyed some early success in this role, he began to stagnate and in his late thirties, he worked as an insurance agent. After a short period in that role, he was fired in 2008 and laid off shortly thereafter in 2009 by a dental company. In 2010, after a short period selling roofing door to door, he decided he should attempt to build his own business. He reckoned he could wield the internal knowledge he had gained as an insurance adjuster, agent, and roofing salesman, to streamline the process for consumers needing roofing and exterior repairs. Although this business model was not unique, Dave believed he could offer consumers value, due to his specialized knowledge of the insurance industry, mitigating the frustration customers may experience while interacting with their insurance provider. Initially, Dave’s business struggled and incurred significant debt. He was on the edge of bankruptcy, with more than two hundred fifty thousand dollars in unsecured liabilities. His health was suffering, and he visited his physician seeking relief. His doctor reported his blood pressure was registering at levels indicating he was at imminent risk of a stroke. He persevered and his business began to become profitable, leading to debt elimination and eventually, a sustainable business in 2014.
Today, Dave describes his business as almost completely self-sustaining, as he spends only a couple hours each week monitoring the finances and ensuring operational continuity. In fact, his general manager has doubled the size of the company since he assumed his “semi-retired” role in 2018. His income far exceeds anything comparable to what he realized at any other point in his life and he enjoys enormous freedom. He feels gratitude for being able to provide abundantly for his wife and children and now has the capacity and drive to devote more time to build others, assisting those in less fortunate circumstances. For Dave, the freedom to serve others intensifies his gratitude for his abundant life and he credits his previous struggles, for not only providing the character development and wisdom necessary for business success, but also as a catalyst for his life satisfaction, which he rates as exceptionally high. He remarked that he is confident he would have been incapable of building such a highly profitable and expanding business in his earlier years, noting that his previous experiences and struggles provided crucial lessons for his current success. This assessment is consistent with the experience of countless late bloomers across the globe, some well-known, but many more like Dave, a regular guy quietly enjoying significant success in his early fifties.
The Path of the Late Bloomer:
Dave’s route is wildly divergent when compared to the wunderkind caricature so pervasively glorified and exaggerated in Hollywood productions and social media platforms. Perhaps it is these rare examples of early achievers, such as Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg creating and introducing information technological platforms that would revolutionize the world and create monumental wealth in the process; that propagate this false message of early achievement as typical. As a society, we have been socialized to believe that without early success, our ability to reach high levels of achievement will be severely hindered (Karlgaard, 2019). However, the good news is there is a more common pathway to success that includes people like Dave Prestwich and a long list of contributors in various fields, who do not reach the zenith of their professional contributions until much later in life, although it is true many late or rebloomers still realize many concrete and quantifiable successes in their early years. Late Bloomers can even include people like Steve Jobs, who enjoyed early success, experienced a major setback and then bloomed again in his second tenure with Apple, introducing the iPod and iPhone (Karlgaard, 2019). Late Bloomers include individuals like Rich Karlgaard (2019), the author of “Late Bloomers: The Power of Patience in a World Obsessed with Early Achievement,” who is also the current editor of Forbes magazine. And they certainly include regular and unknown people who may bloom several times in their lives, to varying degrees, as well as those who reserve all their blooming for their later years.
For those in their thirties and forties experiencing declining levels of life satisfaction, the future can seem ominous, as it would be rational to assume that declining physical health and appearance, certainly suggest the opportunity for meaningful contributions are in decline, relegated to elusive dreams of youthful years. However, an honest examination of reality points to the opposite being true, as the character development, biological changes and wisdom developed as we age, contribute to a maximization of our ability to create realities not possible in our less experienced youthful days. Some of these later bloomer qualities that mature in our later years include; purpose, wisdom, patience, empathy, emotional regulation, emotional intelligence, coping skills, and adversity resilience (Dweck, 2016; Karlgaard, 2019).
In fact, early bloomers often fail to cultivate these critical skills, as result of their early success, as they develop a fixed mindset regarding the explanation for their success. The renowned Stanford professor, Carol Dweck (2016), noted that precisely because of early achievement, these wunderkinds often develop a sense of overconfidence and cease the pursuit of learning and growth. Conversely, the rest of us, who have struggled to achieve success, often humbly recognize our weakness and meticulously seek to develop the traits of the late bloomer, as outlined above. As we mature, we realize our struggles and failures have led to crucial epiphanies, ultimately responsible for our newly discovered wisdom.
The Happiness Curve:
I suggest the happiness or U curve, as some have termed it, is a concept enjoying concentric overlap with the late bloomer construct. The happiness curve is a phenomenon demonstrated in large data sets traversing the globe, tracked in longitudinal surveys spanning decades. Historically, psychologists and various other social scientists have struggled with the notion of objectively measuring something as esoteric as subjective happiness, since even defining the concept of happiness or life satisfaction is problematic. However, it occurred to some that the only opinion of a person’s happiness levels that bears any significance is that of the individual’s assessment of themselves (Rauch, 2018). What we are seeking is our own contentment, a feeling of gratitude and contribution to something meaningful. As many famous psychologists have reiterated, including the late Viktor Frankl, meaning is defined by the individual (Frankl, 1984). I am especially fond of the characterization of meaning as “resonance with our true natures,” a phrase developed as a tribute to the intent of Frankl’s life teachings (Pattakos & Dundon, 2017). This is precisely what often occurs as life experience leads to gratitude and wisdom, especially for those who learn to focus on life pursuits that truly resonate with their authentic selves.
Thus, it occurred to several social scientists that subjective wellbeing, as measured by the individual, is quantifiable in an elegant and simplistic way. Numerous studies spanning the globe have simply asked individuals to rate their own level of happiness or life satisfaction on a numerical scale, with 1 being the worst life they could imagine for themselves and 10 being the best. While individuals in certain nations generally rated themselves happier than those in other nations, a clear trend emerged in the data, and a “happiness curve” could be constructed. Especially in western nations, happiness scores tend to be high for teenagers and young adults and begin to drop steadily into the thirties, with the basement emerging on average, in the mid to late forties (Rauch, 2018).
If this were the end of the story, those in the decline or in the pit of the curve might sink into despair. In the bottom of the curve, most of us still function, but may be restless, looking for excitement. We may blame external factors for our dissatisfaction, such as our spouse or neighborhood. Midlife may prompt desperate attempts to reconcile our discontentment, such as a move or worse, an unnecessary divorce. However, for those approaching or in midlife, hope is on the horizon, because in most cases, the curve begins to trend in an upward direction in the mid to late forties, continuing its linear elevation into the nineties, in many cases. How could this be? If our bodies continue to deteriorate, why would we rate ourselves as happier? There are many possible explanations for this trend, some biological, psychological, and spiritual, but the data is clear that the curve is a tangible and measurable phenomenon (Rauch, 2018).
The Convergence of the Happiness Curve and Late Blooming: Optimizing Life Satisfaction:
When I learned of these large data sets demonstrating the happiness curve, I felt the burden of guilt caused by my dissatisfaction begin to lighten. Although my middle age places me square in the bottom of the dissatisfaction trough, the knowledge that my experience is normal and temporary, provides relief. Dave’s experience, the accounts of many others, empirical data and scientific research, testify of more satisfying times to come. The wisdom that usually accompanies later years, not only orientates us towards patience and gratitude, but also provides the emotional intelligence to become the best version of ourselves. We begin to see how the lessons of our lives can be integrated into a beautiful tapestry, allowing us to provide our most notable contributions to our families, society and our professional pursuits. We become more complete versions of ourselves, and our wisdom is more accessible, as we develop the ability to apply more correct principles to life’s subjective and confusing circumstances. Whether you are one of my professional law enforcement colleagues approaching retirement in mid life and attempting to convince yourself a meaningful encore career awaits you or you are like Dave, seeking to reconcile your assortment of failures and small successes thus far, the convergence of the happiness curve and the late bloomer experience awaits you, a blessing almost too good to be true.
Sgt. Joshua Browne, M.P.S. is a police sergeant, adjunct professor within The George Washington University’s Master of Homeland Security Program, and founder of Heal the Badge Consulting. He authors articles and provides training courses in the realms of emotional resilience and altering organizational culture towards wellness. His efforts seek to realize the goal of fortifying law enforcement professionals, leaders and their families, by providing the necessary resilience tools for success within, outside and beyond the law enforcement career. He also utilizes his law enforcement and academic experience, to lead individuals outside the first responder community, towards reconciling their traumatic experiences and realizing the meaning and growth embedded therein.
Achor, S. (2010). The Happiness Advantage: The Seven Principles of Positive Psychology that Fuel Success and Performance at Work. New York, NY: Broadway Books.
Dweck, C. S. (2016). Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. New York, NY: Random House.
Frankl, V. E. (1984). Man’s Search for Meaning: An Introduction to Logotherapy. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.
Karlgaard, R. (2019). Late Bloomers: The Power of Patience in a World Obsessed with Early Achievement. New York, NY: Currency.
Pattakos, A., & Dundon, E. (2017). Prisoners of our Thoughts (3rd Rev ed.). Oakland, CA: Berrett-Koehler.
Rauch, J. (2018). The Happiness Curve: Why Life Gets Better After 50. New York, NY: St. Martin’s Press.