Autopilot is death and other truths of midlife

May 19, 2018

Media has long depicted a person’s 40s and 50s as the time of the dreaded midlife crisis, when they begin questioning their purpose in life and inevitably get a faster car or a younger spouse. Our guest today says this could not be farther from the truth.

Barbara Bradley Hagerty is a journalist -- she was a longtime correspondent for NPR. Her book, “Life Reimagined: The Science, Art and Opportunity of Midlife,” is part research project part memoir. She spoke with us about the myth of the midlife crisis on "Take Care" and how you can seize the opportunities presented by midlife.

The idea of a midlife crisis came about back in the ’60s when Elliott Jaques, a psychoanalyst, interviewed and researched men in their 40s and decided that people develop an existential fear of dying before they can achieve all their dreams.

“But in fact, when researchers began to look at this, and psychologists began to interview people, they found that only about 10 percent of the people in midlife have this existential crisis,” Bradley Hagerty said. “It doesn’t mean it’s not a hard period full of responsibilities, [though].”

Credit NPR Books

Bradley Hagerty said one’s 40s, 50s and 60s are both the best decades and the worst decades in a person’s life because they are at their mental peak but also experience a slump in emotional state known as the U-curve of happiness. This slump is worst at around 45, but Bradley Hagerty said happiness improves as the person changes their focus in life.

“Around in one’s 40s, one begins to stop concentrating so much on climbing the corporate ladder, on success per se…and they begin to pivot and think about two other things: other people—relationships—and also a purpose or cause that gives them meaning and joy,” Bradley Hagerty said. “When people begin to do that, they really find their footing through midlife, and they get happier and happier right into their 70s.”

Bradley Hagerty’s research focused on people who had to recover from job loss and employment struggles during and after the recession in 2008. Hundreds of people -- many of them NPR listeners who responded to a call out on Facebook -- had lost their job and were looking for a second career. What made the difference between recovering from this loss and continuing to struggle was human connection, Bradley Hagerty said.

“The distinguishing elements for those people that were doing well were that they had people in their lives who either counted on them or believed in them,” Bradley Hagerty said. “The key is to invest in others and create these relationships because they give you a certain bottom, a certain net, to help you deal with these [issues] like losing your job in midlife.”

Another test of one’s resiliency can come from a significant trauma like losing a child or other relative, leading to what Bradley Hagerty called post-traumatic growth -- a time of not just recovery but improvement after severe loss.

“What happens in post-traumatic growth is not that people automatically go back to their happiness set point, but they take this experience and invest outward in others,” Bradley Hagerty said. “You use the agony, the real sadness in your life, to invest outward and try to ensure that that awful thing doesn’t happen to other people in the future.”

She saw this when a mother lost her child to cancer and spent much of her life after that raising money and participating in events to help find a cure for that cancer.

"What you want to do is look for meaning as opposed to happiness because meaning will bring you long-term joy over the decades."

If one does not experience a great trauma, there can still be that fear of coasting to retirement on autopilot. Bradley Hagerty said that going through midlife on autopilot is the wrong move.

“If you begin to take your job, your health, your relationships…for granted, then you find that life becomes a little bit flat and desultory,” Bradley Hagerty said. “The challenge at midlife is to inject new challenges and new joys into your life.”

A good analogy, Bradley Hagerty said, is to compare midlife to a long, run-on sentence. The challenge, then, is to put punctuation back into one’s life -- challenges that make sense of the drawl and bring someone happiness.

Instead of retiring at 65, Bradley Hagerty recommended finding a new purpose that makes life interesting again. Still, there is the worry that memory and mental capacity is slipping away, and with it, one’s capacity to continue to do what they love.

Bradley Hagerty said that this is only half true. The bad news, she said, is that fluid intelligence -- the Sherlock Holmes type of intelligence where one is solving puzzles quickly -- begins to decline after around age 30. But crystalized intelligence -- wisdom, vocabulary and ability to see patterns -- increases.

“And that’s why you want, say, a 55-year-old surgeon and not a 35-year-old surgeon, because that 55-year-old surgeon has seen this before,” Bradley Hagerty said. “When something goes wrong, he knows what to do.”

To keep one’s mind sharp, Bradley Hagerty recommended picking something enjoyable and challenging the brain on a regular basis.

In all, Bradley Hagerty said midlife is all about finding purpose in life, a way to connect with oneself and others so they can enjoy their best years.

“One very wise researcher told me, ‘Happiness is overrated. What you really want to do is invest in things that are meaningful in your life,’” Bradley Hagerty said. “What you want to do is look for meaning as opposed to happiness because meaning will bring you long-term joy over the decades.”