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 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). 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 to 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 seventh 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 website.) 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 blackwater (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.
KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
Now we are going to share a secret about thriving after the age of 45 - intentional fun. Throwing yourself into a hobby can hone your brain and boost your health. As Barbara Bradley Hagerty found in her book of "Life Reimagined," a little passion can transform your life.
BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY, BYLINE: In the summer of 2001, Mike Adsit was flipping through the cable channels, queasy from his latest round of chemotherapy. He was 52, the owner of a construction company in Pennsylvania and recently diagnosed with small cell non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. He happened upon the Tour de France on TV. And in the lead was a cancer survivor, Lance Armstrong before his fall from grace. Mike felt a shiver of hope.
MIKE ADSIT: So I got my bicycle and dusted it off and oiled the chain and started writing. And I couldn't ride a quarter-mile without getting off the bike and walking. That's how I started.
HAGERTY: Within a few months, he had shed 60 pounds and was entering small races, often being annihilated by the younger racers.
ADSIT: I was a babe in the woods, but I was having the time of my life.
HAGERTY: Cycling gave concrete challenges - besting his time, winning a race - a break from the daily and dutiful obligations of midlife.
ADSIT: We go to work, and we build houses or do radio shows or whatever, and we have a routine of family. And bicycling kind of takes you out of that.
HAGERTY: He completed three times in the senior games, a national competition for athletes 50 and older. He came close, but never placed in the top five. Then, in the summer of 2012, he was shaving before a race.
ADSIT: And all of a sudden, I discovered these lumps on my neck. And lo and behold, my cancer came back.
HAGERTY: This time, chemo alone wouldn't work. He needed a stem cell transplant, a grueling multi-day process involving chemo that made him so weak he could barely walk. Mike approached the procedure as he would a long, uphill ride.
ADSIT: If I have to climb the mountain, I have to climb the mountain. And let's get the game face on and get it done.
HAGERTY: The stem cell transplant went flawlessly, but it threw off this training. Now, seven months later, Mike wonders if he can compete with the other cyclists in his category, men 65 to 69 years old. We will know in two weeks.
HAGERTY: After our interview, Mike and I set out on a 20-mile loop. I ask him to show me how he trains for his races.
ADSIT: This first set of intervals - we're going to call these 15-second maxes.
ADSIT: OK. So when I tell you to...
HAGERTY: Oh, wait - so I'm part of this now.
ADSIT: Oh, you're a part - absolutely a part of this.
As I pedal furiously, I realize Mike uses his cycling to encourage others. He raises money for cancer research and coaches patients through their treatment plans. Now, he's coaching me.
ADSIT: Now, hard as you can.
HAGERTY: This ride will change my life.
ADSIT: Hard, hard, hard, hard, harder, harder - push, push, push, push, push.
HAGERTY: OK. Let's say you hate exercise. There are plenty of other ways to find a little purpose in life. In fact, finding a new interest that is unrelated to work or family seems to be the best single fix to the midlife doldrums. One woman I talked with learned Spanish in her 50s and now has a new circle of friends. A man I met trained his dog to make hospital visits.
(SOUNDBITE OF FLUTE MUSIC)
HAGERTY: Dana Sebren Cooper (ph) began taking flute lessons after letting her one-time passion lie dormant for nearly 30 years.
DANA SEBREN COOPER: For me, I mean it's maybe a little dip of Peter Pan, but I want to go back to that feeling I had when I was 17 and I could, you know, belt out a solo with our orchestra. I wanted to - I wanted to have that little bit of youth still in me, I think, you know, before it's just too late.
HAGERTY: Now, almost any hobby can boost your mood and your brain health at midlife. And yet, Kirk Erickson at the University of Pittsburgh says there's something special about exercise. In a groundbreaking study, he found that just walking three times a week increased the area of the brain key to memory by 2 percent.
KIRK ERICKSON: We turn back the clock by at least a year on these people. So we reverse the brain aging, essentially.
HAGERTY: The other thing about exercise - it's free, except for all the gear you have to buy.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Rider 196.
HAGERTY: On a warm morning in a park near Cleveland, I meet up with Mike Adsit a few minutes before his 10K time trial race in the senior games.
How are you feeling?
ADSIT: I feel terrific.
HAGERTY: Wow. Are you nervous at all?
ADSIT: No, I'm not nervous at all.
HAGERTY: Because I'm nervous as hell (laughter).
Mike reminds me that a few months ago, he could barely walk after his stem cell transplant. What's your goal for today?
ADSIT: I'm here, so I've met my goal.
HAGERTY: Almost before we know it, the race is over.
MARY EMMETT: All right, Adsit.
HAGERTY: Mike clocked in at 15 minutes, 35 seconds - a solid time, but not in the top five.
EMMETT: You did amazing.
HAGERTY: That's Mary Emmett (ph), Mike's 60-something girlfriend. She's thinking about competing in the games next time. I asked Mike if he'll be coaching her.
ADSIT: Oh, yes. I'll be coaching you, too, so...
HAGERTY: I grimace, but I'm secretly pleased. And it was Catharine Utzschneider who helped me understand why. Utzschneider is a professor at Boston College Sports Leadership center. She trains a lot of middle-aged athletes. She says early in life, there are a lot of markers - graduation from high school and college, starting a career, starting a family. But at some point, we settle into our routines. Midlife, she says, is like a book with so many words.
CATHARINE UTZSCHNEIDER: But without any structure, without sentences, periods, commas, paragraphs, chapters - with no order, with no punctuation. Goals force us to think deliberately.
HAGERTY: They give us little victories. They prove that we can learn new tricks and in midlife, whether it's mastering a new tune or some new Italian phrases. This rang true for me, especially after I left the world of deadline journalism for the quiet, seamless task of writing a book. And suddenly, Mike Adsit's challenge gave me a goal. Could I compete in the 2015 senior games?
(Singing) Jeremiah is a bulldog, bum, bum, bum...
I started putting in the miles, attacking the hills. I felt young for the first time in decades.
ADSIT: OK. In 10 seconds, we're going to up the cadence to 90 for 90 seconds.
HAGERTY: Oh, geez.
July 11, 2015, a few minutes before the 10K time trial. Under Mike Adsit's guidance, I've qualified to compete against other 50-something women in the senior games.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: (Unintelligible) Did you copy? (Unintelligible) at station two.
HAGERTY: Mike and I walk my bike to the starting line. I feel a flush of affection for this man who has introduced me to my new past time. I also feel like I'm going to throw up.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: Five, four, three, two, one - go.
(SOUNDBITE OF RACE CLOCK BEEPING)
HAGERTY: During the most painful 17 minutes of my mid-adult life, I want to slow down. I want to quit. But I think - come on, sprint to the next telephone pole. Live in this moment. Give it all you have because this is it. Two years of research on midlife playing out in a bicycle race - and then...
ADSIT: Harder, everything you've got. Everything you've got.
HAGERTY: And it's over. OK. So this isn't exactly a rocky ending.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: In seventh place - from Washington, with a time of 17 minutes, 14 seconds - Barbara Hagerty.
HAGERTY: In the past two years, I've discovered a new passion. I've set some goals and met them. I've proved that we don't have to go downhill after 50, and I've made a friend. All in all, it seems like a win to me. For NPR News, I'm Barbara Bradley Hagerty. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.