8 Ways You Can Survive — And Thrive In — Midlife
After two years of research and more than 400 interviews about midlife, former NPR reporter Barb Bradley Hagerty received dozens of insights about how to live well in the middle years. We've distilled them here, with a little context. And, by the way, these ideas work well for people on both sides of the midlife divide.
1. Aim for long-term meaning rather than short-term happiness, and you will likely find both. Aristotle suggested as much when he talked about eudemonia, or the good life: striving with a purpose — raising terrific children, training for a marathon — rather than setting your sites on immediate pleasures, such as enjoying a good meal or day at the beach. It's also the best thing you can do for your mind and your health.
2. Choose what matters most. Clayton Christensen at Harvard Business School describes the eroding effect of short-term decisions — specifically, doing the activity that brings you immediate gratification (such as work) and putting off harder but ultimately more fulfilling activities (such as investing in your marriage and children). I talked with many people who privileged work over family, because work brought immediate rewards. These people closed the sale, they shipped the product, they pulled an all-nighter to get the story on the radio, they were promoted and praised for a job well done. "And as a consequence," Christensen says, "people like you and me who plan to have a happy life — because our families truly are the deepest source of happiness — find that although that's what we want, the way we invest our time and energy and talents causes us to implement a strategy that we wouldn't at all plan to pursue."
3. Lean into fear, not boredom. Most of us become competent at our work by our 40s, and then we have a choice: Play it safe or take a risk. Howard Stevenson, also a professor (emeritus) at Harvard Business School, believes the greatest source of unhappiness in work is risk aversion — which leads to stagnation and resentment. "There's a difference between 20 years of experience, and one year of experience 20 times," he says. Stevenson and the other career experts I interviewed do not recommend chucking it all to blindly follow a fantasy. Rather, be intentional as you try to shape your work to reflect your skills, personality and talents. But we have only one spin at the wheel, so make it count. A great line from Stevenson: "Ask yourself regularly: How will I use these glorious days left to me for the best purpose?"
4. "At every stage of life, you should be a rookie at something." This insight comes from Chris Dionigi, a Ph.D. in "weed science" and the deputy director of the National Invasive Species Council (that kind of weed). He believes trying new things and failing keeps you robust. He took comedy improv classes and now spends many nights and weekends riding his bicycle as an auxiliary police officer for Arlington County, Va. Always have something new and challenging in your life, he says, "and if that something is of service to people and things you care about, you can lead an extraordinary life."
5. Add punctuation to your life. Young adulthood offers plenty of milestones: graduating from college, starting a career, getting married, having your first child. But Catharine Utzschneider, a professor at the Boston College Sports Leadership Center who trains elite middle aged athletes, says midlife is like "a book without any structure, without sentences, periods, commas, paragraphs, chapters, with no punctuation. Goals force us think deliberately." She was so right, as I found when Mike Adsit, a four-time cancer survivor and competitive cyclist, challenged me to compete in the Senior Games (for people 50 and older) in 2015. Suddenly I had little goals every day — a faster training session, or a 50-mile ride — and the prospect of these little victories launched me out of bed each morning. Even if you don't win — I came in 7th in the race — you win.
6. A few setbacks are just what the doctor ordered. Bad events seem to cluster in midlife — losing a spouse, a marriage, a parent, your job, your perfect health. But people with charmed lives — zero traumas — were unhappier and more easily distressed than people who had suffered a few negative events in their lifetime. According to resilience research, some setbacks give you perspective and help you bounce back. And here's what I learned from Karen Reivich at the University of Pennsylvania, who trains Army personnel about resilience. After I fell off my bike and broke my collarbone — threatening my book deadline — I called her up. She gave me two tricks: First, "OPM," other people matter. People who let other people help them tend to recover better than those who are fiercely independent. Second, rely on your top character strengths to get you through. (You can take the character strengths test as well as other questionnaires on the University of Pennsylvania's site.) As embarrassing as my strengths are — industry and gratitude — they helped me cope until I could drive, type, dry my hair or unscrew the mayo jar.
7. Pay attention: Two of the biggest threats to a seasoned marriage are boredom and mutual neglect. The brain loves novelty, and love researchers say a sure way to revive a marriage on autopilot, at least temporarily, is to mix things up a bit. Go hiking, take a trip to an undiscovered land — or drive an RV down the Blue Ridge Parkway, which my husband and I did in June 2013. Honestly, I thought nothing could be more pointless or boring, but based on the novelty research, we piled in with our dog, Sandra Day, and two friends. Something went wrong almost every day — we got caught in a flood, the brakes nearly went out, we could not figure out how to dump the black water (don't ask) for some time. We had the time of our lives. It took us out of our comfort zone, it gave us a grand adventure; it was, in short, The Best Vacation Ever.
8. Happiness is love. Full stop. This observed wisdom comes from George Vaillant, a psychiatrist and researcher who directed Harvard's Study of Adult Development for several decades. The study — still ongoing — followed men from the Harvard classes of 1939-44 to see what makes people flourish over a lifetime. Vaillant found that the secret to a successful and happy life is not biology. It is not genes. It is not social privilege or education. It is not IQ or even family upbringing. The secret to thriving is warm relationships. Oh, then there's this happy coda: Second chances present themselves all the time, if you'll only keep your eyes open.
Barbara Bradley Hagerty is the author of Life Reimagined, and a former NPR reporter.