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A dynamic and inspiring exploration of the new science that is redrawing the future for people in their forties, fifties, and sixties for the better—and for good.
There’s no such thing as an inevitable midlife crisis, Barbara Bradley Hagerty writes in this provocative, hopeful book. It’s a myth, an illusion. New scientific research explodes the fable that midlife is a time when things start to go downhill for everybody. In fact, midlife can be a great new adventure, when you can embrace fresh possibilities, purposes, and pleasures. In Life Reimagined, Hagerty explains that midlife is about renewal: It’s the time to renegotiate your purpose, refocus your relationships, and transform the way you think about the world and yourself. Drawing from emerging information in neurology, psychology, biology, genetics, and sociology—as well as her own story of midlife transformation—Hagerty redraws the map for people in midlife and plots a new course forward in understanding our health, our relationships, even our futures.
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Barbara Bradley Hagerty is the author of the New York Times-bestselling Fingerprints of God 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, Vogue, and The Christian Science Monitor. She has received 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.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
AN ENDING, AND A BEGINNING
September 5, 2012, had been a trying day. I devoted much of the afternoon to crafting a response to a listener who disliked a story that had aired the previous day on All Things Considered. When you cover a beat such as religion, as I did for many years at National Public Radio, you brace for a hailstorm of outraged e-mails every time you file a report.
But I never grew used to them, and this one was particularly up- setting. Just after I sent off my response, I felt a sharp pain in my chest. My breathing became clipped and shallow. Heat radiated up my back. Panicked, I googled “heart attack + women.” The results were not reassuring—are any health-related answers on the Internet reassuring?—and I called my doctor, Brad Moore, on his cell phone. I described my symptoms as calmly as I could.
“I don’t like the shortness of breath,” he said. “I want you to call
I made it partway through “I can do that,” when the room lurched and went black. When I opened my eyes, my colleague John Ydstie was tucking a soft sweater under my head. “An ambulance is on its way,” he whispered. Then I heard Scott Simon’s voice directing the medics to my cubicle. Dr. Moore, who also sees Scott, had called him when he heard me faint.
By the time the ambulance reached the George Washington University Hospital, I was feeling pretty good, well enough to go home, in fact. I explained to the nurse that I was a healthy woman who takes a six a.m. spinning class every day. I could not possibly have a bad heart. The nurse looked at me, handed me a hospital gown, and scanned her notes.
“You’re fifty-three, right?” she asked, as if that number were a clinical condition, like diabetes. “I think we’d better keep you overnight.”
It occurred to me then that I was suffering from a condition: a physical and emotional condition called “midlife.” This condition presented as a disconnect between my thirty-something self-image and my fifty-something reality. I recognized it every time I passed a mirror and saw the lined face of my mother in her fifties staring back at me. I spotted it often at work, when my younger, ambitious self insisted that I clamor to cover that breaking story, while my chronological self shrugged, preferring a good night’s sleep to another all-nighter. Sitting there in the thin hospital robe, I admitted there were moments, more and more frequent, when I seemed to be pushing a wheelbarrow full of dense, unfulfilled ambition up a steep gravel path. It was exhausting, but I didn’t know any other way to live.
I was not left to my thoughts for long. Within minutes, my husband, Devin; my brother, Dave; Dr. Moore; and Marty Makary, a good friend and surgeon at Johns Hopkins, had arrived, creating a little party in our corner of the ER. As the five of us chatted and laughed, e-mails from NPR friends and colleagues began filling my iPhone; someone had sent an All Staff e-mail. My dear friend Libby Lewis called to say she would visit early the next morning. I felt loved, I felt cherished. Why hadn’t I pulled this stunt before?
Eventually everyone left, and I was given a bed at two a.m. I awakened with a dull headache a couple of hours later to a persistent beeping from the bed next to me. I gazed at the ceiling, reflecting on my family and friends and how desperately I wanted a cup of coffee. At six-thirty, I called Devin to see if he could bring me a double espresso. I reached him as he was leaving the house.
“You need to call Dave,” he said.
“Just call him,” he said uncomfortably.
Instinctively, I knew: Dad had died. As it turned out, he had died at five that morning, at age ninety-one.
That night, after I was discharged from the hospital, my family and a few friends collected at my brother’s house for dinner.
“Turns out I was with the wrong relative last night,” Dave quipped when he ushered us in, and it felt good to laugh.
We crowded around the kitchen table and began swapping stories about Dad. We remembered how he learned to swing dance when he was sixty-nine, and how at seventy-four, by then two years divorced, Dad spotted Nancy at church and courted her with such charm and devotion that she had to marry him. We talked about how Dad believed in me: When I was struggling in school as a third-grader, how he spent hours helping me with homework and with prayers written out on yellow legal pads. We recalled how Dad studied French every night between two and three a.m., teaching himself vocabulary and grammar. He never progressed beyond terrible at French, but he al- ways insisted that some things are worth doing poorly. I think he meant that some things are so worthwhile that even if you have no talent, even if the results are mediocre, it is still worth your time and effort. In his final years, his mind and body had failed him—he was nearly blind, nearly deaf, and suffered from dementia—but to the end, Dad lived each day with verve.
After hearing that my father had died, Scott Simon sent me a note. He had known Dad. They belonged to the same health club and would occasionally share a cup of coffee, Dad no doubt clueless as to Scott’s fame. Scott mentioned that he had told his wife, Caroline, about my health scare and my dad’s death.
“Caroline said, ‘Darling, I don’t care how far gone someone is, they always feel a tug from their children. Gene wanted to go instead,’” Scott wrote. “We believe that Gene somehow knew that you needed a little help and he said to God, ‘Barbie still has a lot of things to do. I’m ready. Take me,’ and he said it with that incredible chiseled smile. And God said, ‘Gene, you’ve got a deal.’”
Even now, several years later, these words make me cry. They re- mind me that Dad loved me fiercely and would have instantly traded his life for mine. Scott’s words also illumined a larger truth: A page had turned, Dad was gone and I was here, ostensibly healthy but keenly aware that a hospital stay or worse was only one stressful event away. I saw it would not be too long before my brother and I would be next at bat, and that the next generation to fall was my own.
At fifty-three, I gained a new sense of my own mortality. Now, what would I do with that?
ONE MYTH AND THREE TRUTHS
For the next two years, I examined the middle stage of life. I traveled the country interviewing brain scientists and marriage therapists, psychologists and kidney donors, geneticists and elite masters athletes—well over four hundred researchers and ordinary folk trying to figure out how to thrive at midlife. As a result, I have come to believe that the forties, fifties, and sixties are the least understood and, in some ways, the most critical phase of life. Midlife is not flyover territory. Midlife is O’Hare, midlife is Heathrow, midlife is a bustling hub where the decisions you make today largely determine the rest of your journey on this planet. What I have learned has been a happy surprise. It has changed the way I try to approach every single day.
Midlife has gotten a bum rap. It has suffered guilt by association, linked inextricably to the “c” word: crisis.
The ugly rumors about midlife began in the 1970s, when Gail Sheehy and others stereotyped midlife as a cataclysmic period surging with existential dread, flattened by malaise, tortured by one’s failed dreams, or any combination of the three. In her book Passages, Sheehy wrote of the “forlorn forties” and the “resigned fifties.” Eventually the idea captured the popular imagination, becoming plot lines for Oscar- winning (and lesser) movies, and often an excuse for bad behavior. According to the midlife-crisis argument, certain stalwart or blessed personalities could escape the mud pit, but most of us were drawn inexorably into the emotional mire. We have been socialized to think this way about midlife, and—what do you know?—we all seem to have “midlife crises.”
In fact, there is almost no hard evidence for midlife crisis at all, other than a few small pilot studies conducted decades ago. Researchers today who have examined people across their life spans, peered inside their brains, uncoiled their hopes and fears, and observed how they deal with love and alienation, trauma and death, good and evil, say that midlife is about renewal, not crisis. This is a time when you shift gears—a temporary pause, yes, but not a prolonged stall. In fact, you are moving forward to a new place in life. This moment can be exhilarating rather than terrifying, informed by the experiences of your past and shaped by the promise of your future.
This is not to say that the middle-aged are a cheerful or carefree lot. If happiness over the life span looks like a U-curve—and researchers suggest that it does—then people in their forties and fifties occupy the bottom of the curve. They zigzag between demanding children and frail parents. They shoulder heavy responsibilities at work. They are under-rested, under-exercised, and overfed. Yet 90 percent of them are not in crisis. Midlife malaise is fairly ubiquitous, but let’s not diminish a legitimate phenomenon with a stereotype.
When I launched into this admittedly self-serving project—after all, this is about me as well as you—I knew what to examine. It was like being a first-time tourist to the United States, equipped with a must-see list. When you arrive in Washington, D.C., you must see the White House; in Arizona, the Grand Canyon; in New York City, the Statue of Liberty. But even after roaming through those places, you would not truly understand the country unless you absorbed some of its overriding motifs: democracy, the pursuit of happiness, religious freedom, and eternal optimism.
In the same way, I had my must-see list of midlife monuments: the (tedious) career, the (distant) marriage, the need for investing outward, or “generativity,” which psychologist Erik Erikson enshrined as a de- fining characteristic of midlife. But as I looked around, I also spotted three themes that are helpful, and I believe necessary, to living richly in one’s middle years.
Engage with verve. Emotionally disengaging from any part of your life—your spouse, your kids, your work—cuts off the oxygen and the patient dies. That sounds dire—that’s my point, actually—because this insight surfaced again and again: Autopilot is death. Choose where to invest your energy, and do so intentionally, because the clearest path to a robust midlife is purposeful engagement.
In some ways, the best role models for people over forty are people under eighteen. Children study hard, learn new skills, and throw them- selves into new passions. They fail like beginners, until frustration yields to success. They risk making and tending to friends, even if that hurts. The lesson for midlifers is: Of course it takes work to inject zest and vulnerability into your marriage; it takes courage to reappraise your career for not just income but also meaning; it takes effort to sharpen your aging brain. But the research is clear: Engaging in those things you feel are important will lift your joy and satisfaction, in the moment and over the years.
Choose purpose over happiness. “Happiness is overrated,” Carol Ryff told me. Ryff is a psychologist at the University of Wisconsin and director of an enormous project called Midlife in the United States, or MIDUS. For some twenty years, Ryff and other scientists have tracked thousands of people through their middle and later years, measuring their well-being in every possible way: physically, emotionally, psycho- logically, biologically, and neurologically. After sorting through piles of data, the researchers have concluded that pursuing happiness can backfire, but pursuing eudaimonia rarely fails.
Eudaimonia is the Aristotelian idea of human flourishing, pursuing long-term goals that give meaning to life, rather than short-term happiness that delivers a jolt of dopamine. It is the kind of satisfaction that comes from raising terrific children or training for the Olympics. It means figuring out your purpose in life, given your unique set of talents and capacities. It is the Holy Grail that all people seek, most acutely in middle age, when we can see the final horizon not so many years away.
It turns out that finding a deeper purpose and pursuing it carries an unexpected bonus: It makes you robust. Dozens of new studies show that if you have a reason to get up in the morning, you will live longer, you will enjoy a happier old age, you will better retain your memory, and you will be more likely to not only survive the scary diagnosis but thrive. Purpose in life is more important than education or wealth in determining long-term health and happiness. It isn’t a panacea, but it’s awfully close.
Your thinking is your experience. How you think can shape how you experience the world, your career, your relationships, your health, your happiness. Please note that I am not arguing that whistling a happy tune will make you healthy, wealthy, and wise; at least, not entirely. Much of your life and mine is shaped by biology and life circumstances. Genetics—who your parents are, whether you are susceptible to mental or physical disease, what your emotional “set point” is—this is the wind thrusting your little boat in a particular direction. Your environment steers you as well, with the force of a strong current: Did you grow up in a safe and nurturing home, or a divided or abusive one? Did you receive a decent education? Are you poor or wealthy? Are you married, employed, religious?
But there is also a mechanism called a “rudder”—that is, your thinking, your approach to triumphs and defeats, joys and pain and losses, the stuff no one escapes—that calibrates one’s happiness. Experts believe that 30 to 40 percent of one’s happiness is determined by how a person thinks or acts. That rudder won’t shelter you from a hurricane as you venture across an ocean, but it will absolutely color how much you enjoy the trip.
Your thoughts and attitudes today chart your destiny tomorrow, and the day after that, and the day after that.
A CIRCUITOUS JOURNEY
If you are middle-aged today (roughly betw...
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