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

by Sheldon Nesdale on 26 March 2017

in Purpose

“Maybe you’re having a mid-life crisis?” my wife said to me one day. “Yes, I think you’re right” I replied.

In a very short time my life had started to spin down the plug hole.

  • I had just turned 40
  • I had missed out on a change of career
  • I lost several major clients, income had dried up
  • I moved from the city to a home office to save money
  • I became increasingly isolated from friends and work colleagues
  • I had stopped exercising
  • I lost energy, I woke up later, and still felt tired, felt exhausted in the afternooon, and fell into bed at night
  • I found little pleasure in activities I used to enjoy

On the verge of seeking professional help and medication, I searched Amazon for a book to help me.

I downloaded 6 or 7 free samples with a search for “mid life crisis”, and I worked through them one after another.

They were all hideous.

They were either dead boring, or too technical, or too spiritual or too dry.

I was starting to lose hope when I found this book.

The authors writing style really woke me up.

It was like a one-on-one conversation between her and I.

There was plenty of humour in the pages, everything she said was backed up with science and research, it was full of interesting stories and new ideas that I found myself highlighting.

I had found the right book for me.

I purchased the full edition and read it every morning for 3 weeks until complete.

And within a few days of finishing it, everything has changed for the better:

  • I moved back into a co-working space in town
  • I reconnected with old friends who have mentored me on the next steps
  • I secured a new major client so income started flowing again
  • I got my exercise (cycling to work everyday)
  • My eyes pop open at 4.30am every morning and I can’t wait to get my day started
  • All my enthusiasm and energy for work and life came flooding back

Hooray!

I thought long and hard about sharing my notes with you.

Normally I only share notes on business books. This book certainly renewed my enthusiasm for my business, but it’s full of advice for your life, not for your business.

But maybe we try too hard to segment our lives between business/work, family, and fun?

The edges are blurred.

For example, your first priority may be your family, but sometimes you put your work first, right? You might justify that choice by telling yourself you are working a 50 or 60 hour week for your families benefit.

I’m also worried about the timing. Your midlife crisis may be long behind you, or maybe you never had one, or maybe it’s coming one day.

But I think, whatever your life stage, these notes are a good checklist to keep yourself mentally healthy.

Use it to remind you to reconnect with old friends, or make new ones, or go for a bike ride, or learn a new skill, or make a change at work, or to volunteer your time, or to take your partner on a date, or seek purpose instead of trying to buy moments of happiness with your credit card.

I wish you all the best. Reach out to me if you want to talk.

Here are my favourite parts of the book “Life Reimagined: The Science, Art, and Opportunity of Midlife” by Barbara Bradley Hagerty.

1. An ending and a beginning

In some ways, the best role models for people over forty are people under eighteen.  Children study hard, learn new skills, and throw themselves into new passions. They fail like beginners, until frustration yields to success. They risk making and tending to friends, even if that hurts.

Choose purpose over happiness. Happiness is overrated.

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.

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.

Your thoughts and attitudes today chart your destiny tomorrow, and the day after that, and the day after that.

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 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.

2. Please don’t have a mid-life crisis

…A few very clear themes emerged from those who were thriving during the middle third of life. Relationships moved into the foreground as career and other accomplishments receded into the distance.

….The personality trait that best predicted a long life was not extroversion or optimism, but prudence: The prudent shunned risky behavior. Another counterintuitive finding should bring hope to the overworked: Stress can lengthen your days.

The “Termites” (as they were called) who were engaged in demanding jobs lived longer than those who hated their work or were bored by it. As Friedman and Martin put it, “Striving to accomplish your goals, setting new aims when milestones are reached, and staying engaged and productive are exactly what those following the guideposts to a long life tend to do. The long-lived didn’t shy away from hard work for fear that the stress of it would lead to an early demise; the exact opposite seems true!”

Relationships lengthened one’s years.

What mattered was a person’s social network: friends at church or at work, guys getting together to play golf or women meeting in a monthly book club. It was not the quantity of social connections but the quality of those connections that added years to life.

Those connections involved helping other people, reaching out, being actively engaged to do things for others, that was an added bonus on top of what we already see as quite beneficial from the social contacts themselves.”

“Five words,” Vaillant said. “Happiness is love. Full stop.”

He was surprised at what did not contribute to flourishing: For example, watching your cholesterol after fifty, or career success, or family wealth did not help much. He was even more startled at how wide and deep was the trace of love. Love colored everything.

“It’s loving people for long periods of time that’s good. It’s not divorce that’s bad.’”

“So what are the one or two or three big insights about what predicts fulfillment at the end of the life?” I asked. “Engagement,” he said instantly. “Maintaining engagement with the world.”

“Maintaining that kind of engagement,” he said, warming to his subject, “means you’re going to be in relationships. You’re going to have social support. You’re going to probably be generative, because when you engage, you notice things that you’d like to perpetuate. You notice people you’d like to help and nurture.

Those who thrive shift their energy and attention from seeking happiness to finding meaning, from achieving success to cherishing people and paying attention to moments.

3. Can a midlife brain remember new tricks?

Fluid intelligence is your ability to solve new problems, to reason, to figure something out without relying on your previous experience or knowledge. It is raw intelligence; it rises through the twenties, but the upper limit is thought to be bounded by your genes.

Crystallized intelligence, on the other hand, is all the stuff you have scooped up in school, work, and everyday life: vocabulary, general knowledge, specific skills, math and reading ability. Crystallized intelligence continues to slope upward through midlife and, for many people, into their seventies.

Swiss researchers have since found that brain training raises the fluid intelligence of older adults (average age sixty-nine). And, like young people, the more they trained, the greater the improvement.

4. The shifting sands of friendship

Friends are kind of the Swiss Army knife of relationships: They do everything, boosting your health, lengthening your life, preserving your memory, helping your career, gentling the aging process.

With friendships, you tend to keep the ones that actually benefit you, and so of course they have a bigger [beneficial] impact on you.”

Why would friends make you healthy? Jim Coan at the University of Virginia says that having friends (and other close relationships) prompts you to turn off stress hormones, lower your blood pressure, reduce your levels of inflammation, and boost your immune system.

The inner circle of people—friends or family you would call in a crisis—contains on average five people. The next circle, close but not intimate, is fifteen; the next, fifty; then a hundred fifty, then five hundred, then fifteen hundred.

Let’s take a closer look at your inner circle of five friendships. Dunbar said it usually includes two friends, two family members, and one other person, friend or family.

Over the years, friends move in and out of the inner circle: When a new friend floats into the inner circle, he or she bumps another friend down to the less intimate circle of fifteen.

You’re investing less time, and they are naturally bumped down into the next layer, where their perception of the emotional closeness in the relationship will have deteriorated as well.”

“What happens when you have children?” I asked. “Do you lose even more friends?” “I think you lose almost all your friends,” he said, laughing, “because you just don’t have any time at all when they’re very young.”

“The way you keep friendships going is that you’re constantly updating each other on what’s interesting,”

“If you don’t have that constant updating time, then suddenly you find that you now only have so many things in common.

Feeling lonely and isolated, no matter what your age, will shorten your life as much as smoking fifteen cigarettes a day.

5. It’s the thought that counts

There are two types of happiness: short-term happiness and long-term meaning.

He wrote that the highest of all human goods is the realization of our own true potential.

And our task in life is to figure out what those unique capacities are, and then to do our very best to bring them into reality.

Six attitudes or mind-sets that seem to predict health and well-being:

  1. Positive relations with others
  2. Environmental mastery, or the ability to create or choose environments where you thrive and handle events as they come along
  3. Self-acceptance, or knowing your strengths and weaknesses
  4. Autonomy, that is, independence, controlling your own behavior, and not looking for approval from others
  5. Personal growth, meaning that you keep evolving and learning throughout your life
  6. Purpose in life, or the search for meaning in everyday life, even when things go (horribly) wrong; a sense of direction and a zest for life

6. The oasis, or desert of mid-life marriage

Blame “the atom bomb of intimacy.” Don’t blame your partner, he argues. Fix yourself. When you begin working on your own issues, then your partner will change, too.

When wives are emotionally taken care of by their husbands, they will help their husbands in moments of conflict.

The cancers that can kill a marriage: the “four horsemen” of contempt, criticism, defensiveness, and stonewalling.

7. Finding a little purpose

If you want a healthy glow and a happy midlife, here’s a secret. Give it away: your time, your money, whatever is at your disposal, give it to someone else.

Especially your time. Volunteering prolongs your life.

  • It makes you happier and spares you depression. And heart attacks.
  • It helps you stay sober, and boosts your immune system.
  • It cures burnout.
  • It fires up your dopamine system, giving you chemical rewards.
  • It lowers your stress level and reduces chronic pain.
  • It gives you purpose in life.

10. The meaning of work

“To become the author of our own lives, we need to accept that we have not chosen the base materials of who we are. We can only choose to shape them with a clear view of our strengths and weaknesses.”

‘I’m interviewing for this job, and I think I really want it, but I’ll probably have to take a twenty-five-thousand-dollar cut in pay.’ He said, ‘You know what? If it’s what you want, we’ll make it happen. We’ll get rid of cable, sell a car, whatever it takes.’” As it happened, she needed to make none of these drastic cutbacks. The CEO of the technology company offered to pay the difference in salary, and all her health benefits—so critical for someone living with MS—if she would consult for his company one day a week.

She suggests dividing Nancy’s tasks into categories: immediate job search, research about veterans’ education or online learning, talking to people about setting up a business, reaching out to GW colleagues about opportunities there.

“When you go beyond the obvious, that’s when the breakthroughs tend to occur.”

It’s the long shots that break you out of your normal channels where you come up with new ideas and new opportunities.

“The trick is to stretch in an unlikely direction when you don’t particularly feel like it,” Bev says. “Surprising things develop.

If Nancy pushes each category forward every day or two, eventually, in the fashion of the tortoise crossing the finish line, she will figure out her new career.

[Questions Srini Pillay asked]

  • Can you identify one change that you would like in your life?
  • When would you like it to occur?
  • Is there anything stopping you from doing it today?
  • Is there any other way that you can reframe that?
  • So, what’s the actual conflict for you right now?
  • So, what would be the reward for you if you changed to this new life?
  • What are your fears if you do not make this change today or in the next week? What could happen?

Your thoughts?

Helpful? Not helpful? Let me know in the comments section below.

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