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The Midlife Crisis Myth: 7 Questions with Barbara Hagerty

04/10/2018 04:24:49 PM


There's no such thing as an inevitable midlife crisis and New York Times best-selling author Barbara Hagerty will prove that to you during her talk at the Soul Center on Tuesday, May 8th at 7:00 pm. In advance of her appearance, Ms. Hagerty discussed how to use midlife as an opportunity renegotiate your life's purpose, reemphasize your relationships, and transform the way you think about the world and yourself.

In your book “Life Reimagined,” you argue that there's no such thing as an inevitable midlife crisis. Why then do so many people experience this crisis?

The idea that everyone experiences a midlife crisis comes from a small study conducted in 1965 by a Canadian psychoanalyst named Elliott Jaques who found that in his 40s, a man (he only studied men) begins to see the end of his life approaching and recognizes that he will die before he can realize his dreams. Later, Gail Sheehy wrote the book Passages, which solidified the midlife crisis as an inevitability in our culture. Suddenly all middle-aged men experienced a crisis at 40 and needed a sports car and trophy wife. In reality, nothing could be further from the truth. Throughout the 1990s, researchers from around the world began to explore this phenomenon, and couldn't find any evidence of an inevitable midlife crisis defined by the existential dread of dying. Instead, the researchers found that, around the world, people experience a low-point in happiness during middle-age. There's actually a U-Curve of happiness. People are optimistic during youth and early-adulthood when life is ascendant; then slide into dissatisfaction in their 40's and early 50s, before growing happier again right through their 70s. The low-point in lifetime happiness seems to happen at 45 when people feel overburdened by challenges like raising kids, financial pressure, and career stress, while also realizing all their dreams might not come true. The good news is that, if you wait long enough, life will get better. Our brains get happier as we get older. So while you might not experience the hedonistic happiness of becoming a Hollywood star or starting your own company, you can still live a rich, meaningful life filled with purpose.

So, what most people consider a midlife “crisis” is really a decline in happiness from early adulthood. Are there certain experiences or life approaches which can help people avoid the so-called mid-life crisis altogether?  

You have to develop resilience and hardiness, which requires experiencing some challenges. Hardship gives you perspective. People who endure trauma earlier in life assume the mentality that “if I survived that, I could survive anything.” Here's the surprising thing, regardless of a person's experiences two factors help us thrive during middle-age: the centrality of friendships and finding a purpose in life. In midlife, we tend to get too busy and drop our friendships, but at this point in our lives, friends are more important to our physical and mental well being than family because friends give us an outlet that our families can't; they're untethered to the stresses of family dynamics. Second, what happy, fulfilled people do in midlife is to pivot away from material accumulation (a better job, a bigger house, more cars) towards finding their purpose in life. Purpose can be big or small.  Life's “little purpose” can be as simple as a hobby that is unrelated to your work or relationships. The “larger purpose” inspires us to think about how we live life with meaning. It's a good idea to begin those conversations early (in your 40s), as you start to plot the next phase of your life and career.

It's clear that having a purpose is critical to thriving throughout middle-age, but what does a purpose driven life look like? What's your advice to people who might not have found their purpose earlier in life but are now looking for meaning?

Carlo Strenger, a brilliant Israeli psychologist and philosopher, wrote extensively about self-acceptance during midlife. Strenger introduced the concept of Sosein, a core essence of who we are as individuals. What people need to do at midlife, or ideally before, is to ask themselves: “What am I good at and what am I drawn to in life?” Then: “How can I increase the things I'm good at and love doing, and diminish the things I'm not good and don't like doing.” For example, I'm not a detail-oriented person - I'd make a terrible accountant. What I'm good and what I love doing is drawing insights, connecting the dots, and uncovering the truth in conversations - that's why my Sosein is a storyteller. People commonly define their Sosein in the context of their job. Every employer wants their staff to be productive and happy, but a lack of career purpose leads people to become unproductive. Once you've found your Sosein, try to reorient your career around that purpose. Make the argument to your boss: “I'm really good at this, can I do more of it?” In my case, I was already passionate about injustice, wrongful convictions and flaws in the legal system so that became the focus of my career in journalism. One of the things that hold people back from living their Sosein, especially regarding their career, is a fear of money. You need less money than you think you do to pursue your passion. Reorient your thinking: prioritize a purpose-driven career with less money over material objects like a larger house that comes with an unnecessary financial burden and forces you to stay in a job you don't like.

Pursuing a purpose-driven career seems to fit with a theme of your book: “meaning trumps pleasure.” Early in life, we're taught to invest in ourselves, but you'd argue that investing in external causes leads to happiness later in life. Why is that?

The hallmark of midlife is you stop investing exclusively in yourself (your career and personal wealth) and begin to invest your time and money into things outside of yourself. For most people, it's their kids, but it can also be your community. Investing in your friendships and causes can give you a sense of meaning. Part of the perceived midlife crisis is the realization that, frankly, we're not all that important. It's necessary to get outside of yourself to find meaning. How do we contribute to the world? How can we help the next generation flourish? Volunteering your time or expertise is a great way to answer these questions and find meaning beyond yourself.

You're talking about a monumental shift in thinking, and that change can be scary. How can a person stay positive even when their lives are going through such a significant transition?

My mom used to say “your thinking is your experience.” In other words, how you view the world is how you go through the world. Your approach to life, health, relationships, and career really does matter - gratitude is essential. I'd encourage people to view their problems from the perspective of self-growth. Positivity won't solve all your problems. Say you've been diagnosed with cancer or another serious disease, just thinking about your condition won't make it go away. But cultivating a positive attitude, and relying on friends and family, is a proactive approach that will help you feel better and find meaning in your situation. The result of positive thinking is extraordinary: people shift away from dwelling on their problems and begin to focus on things that matter. The lesson is to appreciate what you have. Choose positivity. Choose gratefulness.

In your book, you recommend that middle-aged folks should look to people under 18 as role models because they are willing to fail to grow. What's the importance of challenging one's self throughout life?     

Throughout their younger years, people move through many milestones very quickly: they graduate high school and college, fall in love, get married and have children. Then midlife happens, and it can feel like one long run on sentence partly because there's nothing to break up the monotony of responsibility. The solution is to reintroduce small challenges into your life. You can do this in your work by pursuing new and innovative projects, and you can do this in your personal life by acquiring a new skill or picking up a new hobby. Learn a new language. Start playing chess. Go exercise regularly. Keep yourself sharp. You need to challenge yourself, and you need to fail.

What advice would you give to people approaching middle-age who hope to avoid experiencing such a crisis?

The earlier people understand the value of pursuing a purposeful life and meaningful career, the better prepared they'll be for midlife. What people can expect from my talk, is that the news is much better than they might think. Midlife is a peak time. Despite your happiness level, you'll begin to recognize that the meaning of your life has never been higher.

About Barbara Bradley Hagerty

Barbara Bradley Hagerty is the author of the New York Times-bestselling books Fingerprints of God and Life Reimagined. She is also an award-winning journalist who spent nearly 20 years as a correspondent for NPR. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, and Vogue. A recipient of the Templeton-Cambridge Journalism Fellowship in Science and Religion, and a Knight Fellowship at Yale Law School, she lives with her husband in Washington, D.C.


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