One sure sign of middle age is that many things from your childhood resurface and surprise you. You crave the taste of everyday idli-sambar, which you hated intensely then because you wanted to explore other delightfully exotic dishes like noodles and pizza. That eccentric uncle who embarrassed you? You now see he showed what you were to become when you least expect it. Remember how you used to bargain with god? Do this and I will break a coconut? One you thought you had outgrown? It’s back now. And oh, your mom’s tendency to overfeed every friend of yours who graced the doorstep of your childhood home? The way she used to linger and interject herself in the conversation with your friend? You do it now.
Many things that we once disowned define us now. No wonder it is a time of great confusion. While a spirit of adventure marks the adolescent years, middle years seem to be marked by a spirit of reflection and stocktaking. Youth asks, “are we there yet?” and the middle aged mind seems to agonize, ‘ is this it?” Midlife forces us into humility while youth has the luxury of time and hence arrogance. Midlife is the also time we to begin to evaluate our legacy, our seemingly humble accomplishments against the perceived potential of our youth, cognizance of the monotony of life and the realization that this may be it and it is up to us to create meaning.
It is a harbinger of melancholy, the beginning of the end, colored by nostalgia. No wonder reunions abound during this phase of life. Infamous midlife crises of men buying their toys and trophy wives and women running away to find happiness or loading up on antidepressants to live with the fact that they didn’t or couldn’t run away! Spiritual pursuits are yet another way to make meaning.
Poor Alec Baldwin, he could not escape the bell curve. Science plots happiness on a U shaped curve. This curve describes the downhill movement of human happiness starting in the thirties and not picking up until the fifties. Thirties and forties, even more, are said to be miserable. According to this model, there is persistent happiness only when you start developing wisdom and you accept life without expectations and the attendant disappointment in later years. By the time you are seventy, you are grateful you are still around and kicking. Or as my son says, you feel free to give up. Every day becomes a gift.
Science shows that midlife is the least happy phase of life. But scientific research on old age brain also gives us a great deal of information on why and how (potentially) people outgrow their middle age melancholy, as they get older. I have put together a few suggestions on how to incorporate them in your midlife instead of waiting for wisdom later in life. No, my advice is not about giving up or settling but it is about recalibration, passion, action, and surrender.
- Embrace the melancholy, but mindfully and critically. As my readers can guess, I support and advocate an examination of all emotions, both positive and negative. When the past comes to the present, it produces a nostalgic melancholy that mires you in the past while overlooking the present and the future. It is mostly the need to escape from this melancholy that fuels the midlife crisis. Midlife could lure you to take risks that you otherwise you would not: quit your job, cheat on your spouse among others. But melancholy can also be the source of creativity. And an opportunity to stop and reflect. So you can use the same melancholic reflection to make healthy changes in your life.
- Reclaim your sacred, revisit your priorities and take baby steps. By this time you may have been climbing the professional ladder and hopefully with reasonable success. Or you could be raising your children and getting ready for an empty nest. Make this the time to ask if you are on the right ladder. Look at various options. In what way can you contribute to the world and make your life meaningful? Make a pro and con list for your options. Fantasize but do not make any rash decisions. Do not quit your job just yet. Instead explore other options, not just for income but also for occupying your time meaningfully and productively. No, stay away from the yoga teacher unless you are Alec Baldwin.
- Develop gratitude. You cannot lead a mindful life while denying one set of emotions. However, you decide to choose which wolf to feed. You have survived your youth. Be grateful. You still have the rest of your life to look forward to. Be grateful. Gratitude practice also helps you stay in the present instead of being obsessively stuck in the past and trying to recreate your youth. If you want to skip your high school reunion during this time, you have my permission. It will also help you develop a more appreciative and positive outlook towards life, which you can expect to get when you are about seventy in the normal course. Why wait? Do it now.
- Develop emotional self-regulation: Remember this when you want to run away with your barista or blow your kid’s college money or worse still your retirement money on a new business adventure. Older people make better decisions and are happier because they have better emotional self-regulation. However, age is not a barrier to cultivating self-regulation. I am not advocating inertia or paralysis by analysis but reminding you to consider the long-term impact of your decision and avoid the trap of instant gratification.
- Engage, Relate, and explore. Find meaning. Focusing on relationships that give them personal meaning and happiness make the wiser seniors happier. Cultivate a healthy supportive social network including family and friends. You cannot produce it in old age if you don’t nurture it in your middle age. It may be volunteering for the next elections or at your local food bank. It could be reconnecting with nature and kindred spirits by joining a hiking club. It may be your local church or animal shelter or the local community art center. Take up art if it moves you. Or music. Anything that enriches your life and re-energizes you is good. It is all about creating and finding personal meaning. It doesn’t have to be your work but it could be.
- Be kind and generous to others. Compassion as a response to others’ pain and suffering is admirable. It is even better to celebrate others’ accomplishments. It may be difficult in the beginning but continued practice will help you grow into a happier person. You could be part of the positivity contagion.
As my LOL likes to say, middle age is great because you are old enough to know what you want and young enough to still get it. Midlife provides an opportunity for self-acceptance and surrender if you let it. A rare reset button in life. Take it.
PS1: I have nothing against Alec Baldwin. I loved him in 30Rock! Using his name was a cheap, shameless experiment at promoting my post. I wish him and his family well. Everyone in this life is just f*ing trying to make it. Including celebrities.
PS2: Reminder, LOL stands for the Love of my Life.