Here are eight terrific insights on how to live well in your middle years distilled from former NPR reporter Barbara Bradley Hagerty’s new book, Life Reimagined – The Science, Art, and Opportunity of Midlife.
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 eudaemonia, or the good life: striving with a purpose — raising terrific children, training for a marathon — rather than setting your sights on immediate pleasures, such as enjoying a good meal or a 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).
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. “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. 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 to think deliberately.”
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.
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.
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. 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.