July 1, 2023
By Mike Davidoff
The intent of this blog is to share in more depth some of the common emotional and financial challenges that are unique to the sandwich generation. I write this from the perspective of both a lifelong personal finance and investment professional, but more so from the lens of someone who believes we all learn from each other’s shared experiences and knowledge to make our own lives just a little bit better.
One of the most important books that I read in my early 40’s was Jonathan Rauch’s “The Happiness Curve: Why Life Gets Better After Midlife.”¹ I was looking for answers on why midlife felt so cruel and unforgiving during a difficult stretch in my life.
My father had recently passed away unexpectedly, and my father-in-law was diagnosed with an incurable brain tumor around the same time. I was navigating a stressful job situation, as my company was facing a necessary reorganization due to changes in our senior leadership and the industry at large.
My kids were eight and 10 years old at the time. I needed to be emotionally present for them, but I was trying to navigate my grief and stress on top of the financial pressures given the uncertainty that my company was facing. I needed to be strong for my wife who was grieving her own father’s illness, and for my mother who was now a widow. It was a heavy period.
My story is not unique to most of us in the Sandwich Generation; it just happened to me in a condensed period of time. Now that I am a few years removed from this difficult phase, I have gained significant life experience and perspective. I feel that I am stronger, wiser and battle tested for the inevitable future challenges that life will bring me.
The idea of the Happiness Curve is that our lifetime happiness is shaped like a U curve. We are generally happy in childhood and our young adult years as we are ambitious, energetic and optimistic (and let’s face it, a bit naïve). We then go through a long period of declining happiness in our 30’s and our 40’s as emotional and financial pressures mount. This is often due to the juggling act of busy work schedules, raising kids and caring for aging parents. In addition, as we hit our 40’s, we may feel regret for things in life we did not achieve, as well as disappointment when we compare ourselves to others who appear more successful, wealthier and happier. Social media only adds an extra kick to the private parts.
During this time, we begin to digest and accept our aging, and our expectations for what our lives should be reset lower. As we exit this phase, oftentimes our midlife stressors start to dissipate and our optimism and appreciation for what lies in front of us ticks up. The research shows happiness accelerates again as we hit our golden years, and are able to enjoy luxuries such as grandkids, retirement and greater freedom over our time.
When I first read the Happiness Curve book, I felt comforted that I was not the only person going through this troughing period in my 40’s, but I also tried really hard to find ways to hack the system. Me being me, I was going to analyze and grit my way out of this midlife malaise. I ran half-marathons and joined CrossFit. I started to meditate. I joined non-profit boards. I read a bunch of self-help books. I changed jobs and convinced my wife to move our family to my college alma mater town. I started a business.
It was all for the sake of personal growth and reinventing myself, but what I really learned is this…
Despite our best efforts, we cannot slow down time. We are faced with multiple transitions in a relatively short period of time. Our kids may be getting ready to go off to college. Our bodies start to slow down. Friends divorce. We lose a parent. We are at an age where it starts to be less rare to lose a friend to illness or some other tragedy.
Now that I am approaching 50 (and hopefully back on the upswing of my happiness), I have learned that a key component to my happiness is aligning the way I allocate my time, money and energy (our most precious resources) relative to what matters most to me. I look at this for my own life, my shared nuclear life with my wife and kids, and my larger life with family, friends, clients, colleagues and community.
My wife and I discuss this true measure of our personal wellness balance sheet often. We want our time allocated to activities that really matter to us. This includes making intentional career choices where we feel connected to the type of work we do. We want to maximize the time we get to spend with our kids before they leave us for college. We want to spend time with our aging parents and relatives
by showing up to family celebrations and allocating trip dollars to see them. We make sure to take time to call and visit our out-of-town lifelong friends because those are the relationships that will endure as we age and experience the next leg of the Happiness Curve together. All of this costs time, money and energy, but it is well in alignment with our values.
If you are feeling the midlife Sandwich Blues and wondering when it will get better, my advice is to stay patient and hang in there. It generally does get better, and we eventually move towards the next phase of life which presents new opportunities and challenges. You are certainly not alone, and there are many of us out there, right next to you.
Jackson Browne reminded us of this idea in his masterpiece, “Running on Empty².”
Looking out at the road rushing under my wheels
I don’t know how to tell you all just how crazy this life feels
Look around for the friends that I used to turn to to pull me through
Looking into their eyes, I see them running too
Running on (running on empty)
Running on (running blind)
Running on (running into the sun)
But I’m running behind