What are the best years of adult life? The answer may surprise you: middle age. How do we know that middle age is the best time of life? The term “best” implies a common standard of value by which we can measure and compare. Emotional distress serves as that standard. Research on well-being across the life course usually maps the average levels of depression and anxiety. Depression is a feeling of sadness and dejection marked by trouble sleeping, concentrating, and acting. Anxiety is a state of unease and apprehension, characterized by worry, tension, and restlessness. Both are unpleasant feelings that most persons would rather avoid. They arouse the attention of psychiatrists when they are extreme, prolonged, or inexplicable. More commonly, depression and anxiety come and go with the challenges and adaptations of life. Life course researchers have begun studying other emotions too, particularly anger (Mirowsky & Schieman, 2008; Ross & Van Willigen, 1996; Schieman, 1999, 2003) and positive feelings such as happiness, serenity, and elation (Ross & Mirowsky, 2008; Simon & Nath, 2004). These researchers add important details that will be summarized. However, the age-group differences in depression and anxiety tell the main story, as detailed below. Both forms of distress decline from a peak in early adulthood. The predominant type of distress shifts from active (anxiety and anger) to passive (depression) as people age. This chapter has three main sections. The first describes the emotional trajectories of adulthood. The second describes the five views of age that help researchers understand why emotions change as people age. The third describes the conditions and beliefs that change across adulthood, shaping the trajectories of emotions. Readers can consider how their own experiences, or those of family members, vary across the life course.
In terms of depression, middle age is the best time of life. Figure 17.1 illustrates results from the survey of Aging, Status, and the Sense of Control (ASOC), a six-year follow-up survey (1995–2001) of about 2,500 US adults selected at random. (Appendix A gives details about ASOC.) Depression was measured by asking, “On how many days in the past week have you felt sad? Felt lonely? Felt you couldn't shake the blues?