In our youth-worshipping culture, we pay little heed to age except to try and stave it off. This can lead to midlife crisis—often portrayed as a cliché event involving flashy new cars or dramatic physical alterations. In the 1950s, psychologist Erik Erikson was the first to identify that adults go through psychological stages just like children. Modern research suggests that midlife, which begins around 40, can be a time of creative opportunity instead of crisis if you prepare for it in advance.
The good news is people tend to become happier once they’ve crossed the midlife divide. No need to wait. You can learn now what people in their golden years already know:
1. Power up your now. Being present in the moment may seem like obvious advice, but consider it flexing a muscle you’ll use a lot in later life. Tamara Sims, a psychologist in Stanford Lifespan Development Lab suggests that older adults change their priorities due to a decrease in time remaining, which leads to greater focus on the moment. “Instead of focusing on the future, expanding networks and knowledge acquisition, you’re really focused on the present and savoring on what you have now.”
2. Get on the couch. The therapist’s couch that is. A lot of what arises at midlife, according to psychologist Carl Jung, are “unexpressed” and unexplored aspects of the self from the first half of one’s life. Childhood resentments, fears, phobias. Don’t wait to find yourself. Save later life for reaping the rewards of your hard work.
3. Live your dreams. Since it can be difficult to determine what your retirement will really look like, and when it will happen, waiting to realize your dreams can be a set up for disappointment. Find small ways to live your dreams now. Leza Lowitz, a writer and yoga instructor had her midlife crisis around 40, when she moved to Japan. “I asked how was I going to fit in, what would I do, how would I make a living? But I decided to follow my heart and opened a small yoga studio. It was difficult at first, but I stuck with it. We just celebrated our 12th anniversary.”
4. Be proactive about your health. Get that physical or blood panel. You don’t have to be blindsided by menopause or high cholesterol. Even small changes now can make huge differences down the road. And remember that we heal more slowly, and with less recovery the older we get, so do it now.
5. Speak your truth. If you’ve been a people-pleaser, midlife is often a time when sleeping resentments awaken. Learn to start asking for what you want and need (See #2—seek therapy). If you’ve been dealing with doubts or dread about partners, choices, or children, speak up now so suppressed feelings don’t interfere with later life.
6 Be selective. According to Sims, “Older adults are highly selective in who they interact with and what they do. As we age we prune and become more selective about who we want to spend time with, and choose those people that matter in our lives.” Look around your life with clear eyes—do you have relationships of obligation? Do you give in to people out of guilt or a sense of needing to prove yourself? Let those relationships go.
7. Downsize. The closer we get to the end of our lives, the less stuff we really need. Not to mention the financial burdens of purchasing and maintaining stuff. Learn to pare down and live with less now to practice living a life of greater material simplicity and emotional depth later.
8. Give back. Putting yourself into some form of service, no matter how small, is proven to reap benefits to you and others, and prevents navel-gazing pity parties. Dawn Carr, a social scientist at Stanford University, says people beyond midlife, in what is now being called “the third age,” often desire to give back through service, both for philanthropic and personal reasons. Sow the seeds early, so that you’ll be in practice and have more to offer.
Rest assured: It does get better. “Research is very clear that as adults get older they have improved emotional experience, more positive emotions,” said Sims.