A unicorn without a horn is a horse

4th May 2015

Recent writing by Jonathan Rauch draws attention to the U-shaped curve of life’s happiness. As we arrive into adulthood our life-satisfaction drifts downwards, not to turn the corner until our forties, when, driven by a certain acceptance that middle age carves from the wreckage of fractured dreams, we experience a rebound of happiness. 

The ‘happiness curve’, derived from economics and supported in experimental psychology, is a determinant of human motivation. It is for this reason that marketing is often deeply concerned with inspiring dreams when targeting consumers in their twenties and thirties (no one dislikes a sense of happiness eroding, after all), and affirms comforts by the time the consumer is in his or her sixties (when contentedness is actually ‘a thing’).

Do we all experience such a curve? Indeed not. Human behaviour is complex and counter-narratives abound. But it is a force worth considering, nonetheless. 

In the lounge of my family-run hotel in Italy, a place of eclectic and simple Neapolitan charm, I came across a beautiful, old-fashioned wooden horse.

I looked it up and down carefully, and, with time, noticed a burrowed hole in its wooden forehead. This was no horse. In that hole there once lay magical powers. I was, in fact, staring at a broken unicorn.

In a sort of crude metaphor for the U-shaped journey of life, I suddenly saw a reflection of myself.

There I stood, punctured by that vain dream of changing the world through my energy and ambition, only to look in the mirror and see the reality of how things had worked out. I was neither Pegasus, nor a unicorn. I was simply a horse.

So what does the U-shaped happiness curve predict? Well, apparently, in one’s forties, the confusion created by dreams tends to disperse, to be replaced over time by simple gratitude and a fresh taste for adventure.

But a unicorn without a horn is still a horse.

Reassuring? For sure! Because one can choose to saddle-up and mosey wherever one pleases. And that, as I teeter on the brink of fifty, is my kind of happiness.  Brian McIntyre. Orchard. 2015.

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