Life Reimagined: The Science, Art, and Opportunity of Midlife

Life Reimagined: The Science, Art, and Opportunity of Midlife

by Barbara Bradley Hagerty

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Overview

Life Reimagined: The Science, Art, and Opportunity of Midlife by Barbara Bradley Hagerty

“Barbara Bradley Hagerty is a wise and engaging guide through the possibilities…of middle age.” —Daniel H. Pink, author of To Sell Is Human and Drive

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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780399573323
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 03/14/2017
Pages: 464
Sales rank: 56,762
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.50(h) x 1.30(d)

About the Author

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.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1.
 
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
911 immediately.”

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.

“Why?”

“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 between the ages of forty and sixty-five), this isn’t your parents’ midlife. Chances are good you will live to eighty or beyond. You may have two marriages and two or more careers under your belt. You will experience better health longer; you will have more time and more physical and mental acuity to compete in triathlons, learn Mandarin, write a novel, or start a nonprofit. At the same time, the world is no longer brimming with unlimited possibilities; the choices you have made until now set boundaries on your future. You will be confronting a different set of questions, challenges, and choices than your parents did, and their wisdom is not enough. The answers will come from you.

Until recently, scientists have paid scant attention to the middle years. Researchers find people between ages zero and twenty-five endlessly fascinating.  And why not? That is the time of life when neurological and social development are stampeding like wild mustangs. If you happen to live to seventy-five (or, better, one hundred), you will once again become the object of scientific scrutiny.  But the middle years, when most of us are healthy and productive, when we are creating families and suffering midlife malaise (or not), those years have been a vast desert, a research wasteland.

A tsunami of research is moving this way, drawing from biology and genetics to psychology and neuroscience.  Researchers are doing more than taking snapshots of the middle years. Using longitudinal studies, they are scrutinizing people who have aged successfully, and are gleaning their secrets for the benefit of our generation.  Science is confirming what we all suspected instinctively: There are certain steps you can take to thrive during midlife and set the foundation for the later years.

Absorbing the cascades of new research felt at times like sipping from a fire hydrant. But as a reporter, whenever I am faced with telling a complicated  story,  I remember  my favorite  piece of journalism  ad- vice: Chronology  is our friend. That is the blueprint for this book.  I will describe how my year of researching midlife unfolded.  During that time (and a little beyond), I experienced the themes of every single chapter  in a personal way—sometimes  when I didn’t want  to, some- times when it hurt. Serendipity helped. Every month seemed to launch a unique midlife concept: It just so happened, for example, that March would begin my “brain” research and June revolve around “marriage.” It was not that the investigation of those topics ended in those months (thank goodness), but it overshadowed everything else.

Learning the art and science of midlife felt more like bushwhacking through a dense forest without a compass than cruising the interstate with its numbered exits. The whole process was messy, unpredictable, and full of contradictions. During this time, I landed in the emergency room twice—well, three times, if you include the day I mistakenly took six Percocet instead of six prednisone.  I trained for the so-called Senior Olympics—and got hearing aids. I helped care for my ninety- one-year-old mother after she shattered her femur—wanting her to live, and giving her permission to die. I reevaluated my friendships, revamped my career, developed intense and unrelenting pain in my throat—and used principles of neuroplasticity to try to relieve it.

Those who say life is boring have never been middle-aged.
 
 
On January 1, 2013, I drove from a sunny, chilly Washington, D.C., to a lonely, dark, bitterly cold Williamstown, Massachusetts. It was my first day of book leave from NPR, and largely, I fretted.  I had envisioned this book as a personal  march through  the science of midlife, and  I worried  that  I had  promised  too  much.  Training my brain to raise my IQ for my midlife brain chapter—I can do that.  Learning the secrets of long-term marriage from online dating sites—that’s do- able. But for the chapter on midlife hobbies, I proposed biking across the country! Did it occur to me that riding just fifty miles a day would still eat up two months of book leave?

I arrived in Williamstown near midnight, when it was six degrees below zero, and lugged my suitcase, computer, printer, and three boxes of research articles up the icy stairs of the house I was renting.  For the next four weeks, I would be teaching a writing class to ten students at Williams College, my alma mater. When you have no biological children of your own, you have to jerry-rig a way to invest in future generations—a signature of a healthy midlife. More than that, I hoped this class would push some seeds of transformation into my psyche, make me more instinctively generous, less focused on my stuff. In fact, my secret hope was that writing this book would change me.

My hunch on that frigid day of new beginnings was that people don’t change much at all. I am the same girl, I thought, who toiled in the college library  instead  of eating dinner with friends, who fretted about letting down her teammates in the next cross-country race, who never sat back and said, “Yes, this moment  right now,  this is an extraordinarily blessed moment. I am happy.” I am the same girl my kindergarten teacher called to the front of the room and introduced as the “class worrier”—a harsh assessment, but prescient. I am the same girl who, at seven years old, fell in love with horseback riding at a ranch in Colorado. Each morning,  with a frown as dark as a thunder- cloud, I marched  purposefully  to the corral,  where I would saddle up Stampede, the pokey white pony I rode every day, all day, for a week. I was in love, my young soul soaring with the thrill of horses, but from my anxious face, you would think I was about to be waterboarded. I was too busy focusing to smile.

Can we change, I wondered, even at the margins? Are we middle- agers destined by our wiring and half a lifetime of behavior to proceed along a route that feels more desolate than meaningful? Can we reset our expectations, renegotiate our relationships, take a compass reading and shift direction? Can we reimagine our lives? At that moment, I simply didn’t know.

A year and a half later, Mom and I met for coffee on the outdoor patio at her favorite café. It was late July, a few days before her ninety-third birthday, and she was, as always, impeccably dressed in beige slacks, a long-sleeved black shirt, and a tan straw hat with a black rib- bon. It must have been eighty-five degrees, but Mom didn’t notice: She was too busy relishing the date with her daughter.

“I went to bed thinking about this moment, and I woke up thinking about it,” she said, even though I see her almost every day.

After a few minutes, we were joined by Desiré Moses, a young journalist who was helping me with my research. Mom spent several minutes asking all about Desiré’s life. Eventually I shifted the conversation to Mom.

“You know, Desiré,” I said, “my parents divvied up the work, character-wise, when it came to my brother and me. Mom taught us integrity and Dad taught us deferred gratification.”

I paused.

“Sometimes, I wonder when it’s time to stop deferring and start gratifying.”

Mom looked at me in wonder.

“It’s now, honey!” she said, raising her arms like a referee signaling a touchdown. “This is the time to enjoy your life. Don’t waste another moment!”

Something like a shutter clicked in my mind’s eye, preserving the scene to be savored later. At that moment  I recognized that I was un- bearably  fortunate: I was working  on a book,  was married  to a very good man, and had won the lottery with my stupendous stepdaughter, Vivian. At that moment, I was sitting between two generations, Mom and Desiré—one with the wisdom of the past, one with the energy of the future—and delighting in both.  Remember this moment, Barb, I thought, life is very good.

Research suggests that if you do this, if you frequently mark off mental milestones, life feels as if it slows down and takes on more meaning.  And so I trained myself to take snapshots of moments and tuck them away. Sitting at that café, I realized that the months learning how to thrive at midlife had altered my emotional DNA. Not completely, but definitely at the margins. And the margins make all the difference.

Table of Contents

1 An Ending, and a Beginning 1

2 Please Don't Have a Midlife Crisis 15

3 Can a Midlife Brain Remember New Tricks? 45

4 The Shifting Sands of Friendship 83

5 It's the Thought That Counts 119

6 The Desert or Oasis of Midlife Marriage 153

7 Finding a Little Purpose 199

8 When Bad Stuff Happens 233

9 Giving It Away 271

10 The Meaning of Work 311

Epilogue 355

Afterword: Sixteen Suggestions For Midlife 375

Acknowledgments 377

Notes 381

Index 441

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