Middle age is a time to pause, take a careful look at your life, and ask yourself a few questions. Are you happy? Are you where you want to be? And, above all, where do you go from here? Without clear goals people tend to drift.
Midlife and Fantasy
“Halfway through life’s journey I found myself in a dark wood,” wrote Dante, in perhaps the most famous description of a midlife crisis in all literature. But at what point are we halfway through? According to a Guardian newspaper article, published in September 2012, the entry point for middle-age is now 56. Indeed, every day there seems to be a different article assuring us that 60 is the new 40, or 80 the new 60. And even the most sober popular science authors take it for granted that the lifespan will rise (see Yuval Harari’s Homo Deus, for example). In other words, your midlife crisis may be premature!
Whatever point you believe middle age begins, when thinking about your life and choosing a new direction it is vital not to drift into fantasy. People start sensibly enough, promising themselves they will “get out of the Insurance racket by 50,” or that they will end their marriage when the children leave for college, but then, thrilled with this prospect, their imagination fires up and they picture themselves running a little thatched-roof bar on some Hawaiian beach, or returning to drama school and fulfilling their dreams of movie stardom. Keep yourself grounded; the more realistic your goals, the more likely you are to achieve them – without harming yourself or those you love.
Getting Into Shape
First, you must get your body into shape. In their 30s and 40s, as people settle into stable relationships, have children, and focus on building a career, they tend to ignore their physical health. Often, this is because they no longer feel the need to impress or attract sexual partners. Sometimes, they are so depressed by what they see in the mirror that they cannot motivate themselves to exercise – or even see the point. After all, going for a run is not going to rid you of a bald patch.
But only when you are in good physical shape will you have the energy and thus the drive to achieve your goals. And be careful not to overestimate how healthy you really are. Almost everyone does this, especially in middle age. The truth is that even those who make an effort to live healthily do not do enough. In the developed world, the vast majority of people simply eat too much and move around too little. Most spend the majority of their working lives sitting down, and often snack on candy bars to get them through the day. So great in this problem that some managers remove chairs from the computer desks, placing the screens at eye level and forcing their employees to stand as they work.
By now, the basics of healthy living are so well known as to barely need repeating: stop smoking; cut down on alcohol, junk, and processed food; eat plenty of raw fruits and vegetables; and take regular, gentle exercise. But what specific health goals should someone in middle-age set? One of the first ought to be to increase muscle mass. From middle-age onwards, this deteriorates, so do plenty of resistance training.
Inflammation is particularly important, since it causes a great deal of both physical and mental illness. The British health journalist Hazel Courtenay also cites inflammation as a “major contributor to ageing,” adding “Degenerative diseases that are associated with inflammation in the tissues are arteriosclerosis, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, diabetes, arthritis, ME, cancer, and allergies.” Even more striking, inflammation is now thought to play a central role in depression. Some people, so the theory goes, have over-sensitive immune systems. When the immune system reacts, the body becomes inflamed and mood plummets (this would explain that terrible low feeling after a bout of flu). So be wary of this and make it a goal to keep inflammation under control. A raw food diet would help, as will supplements like turmeric and fish oil.
Assuming you wish to live as long as possible, you ought to go for regular check-ups as well. The body is rather like a car: as it ages, the parts falter, break, seize up, and wear away. And yet look at the superb condition in which some people keep old, ‘classic’ cars. Just as you take a car into the garage for a check-up, so you should regularly take your body to the doctor. A mechanic checks the engine, the oil, the exhaust, the spark plugs, and so on; your doctor can check blood pressure, cell count, heart rate, BMI, etc.
Above all, make it a goal to treat your body well. It is an astonishing fact that the average person takes enormous, almost obsessive care of their motorbike, their Pre-Raphaelite paintings, their first edition books, even their shiny new kitchen, and yet when it comes to their body, they barely make any effort at all. Your primary goal should therefore be to reverse this. Be conscious of everything you put in your mouth. More than that, do not take foolish risks. If you fall while hiking and shatter your knee, it will never be the same again. The body is no longer so resilient or quick to heal. And major injuries, like breaking a hip, or chronic illnesses, like diabetes, will slow you down, lower your mood, and often lead to other physical and mental illnesses.
Relationships and Children
For many people, midlife brings certain issues to a head – relationships in particular. Someone who has been single and avoided serious commitment may worry about the future. Do they always want to be alone? That is a rather loaded way of putting the question, of course, and many would rightly object, arguing that they are perfectly happy on their own and can’t imagine anything worse than sharing their apartment with someone else. Others begin to panic, however. As they reach their 40s, they worry about fading looks, or that anyone they meet is likely to have a great deal of so-called “baggage.”
Then of course there is the question of children. Those who have not yet had any worry that the biological clock is running down. They look around them at their friends and neighbors and fear being left behind. Above all, they worry about who will look after them when they are old. Before setting such goals, be sure you are working out what you want and not what you think you ought to want – or what society expects.
Even those who are in relationships, or do have children, ought to pause and think things through. Are you happy? Is this the person you really want to be with for the next 40 or 50 years? And what if the lifespan really does rise to 120, or 130, as many now predict? If you are in your late 40s, that means committing to this person for another lifetime.
Whatever your situation, you need to consider what you want. Do not just dismiss extended lifespans as pseudo-science. If you are in good physical shape and reside in a peaceful and developed society, you are almost certain to live a great deal longer than you expect. Do not panic and make a mistake. Women, for example, often reach their late 30s, see their friends drift away to raise a family, fear being alone, marry in haste, become pregnant, and then realize they’ve made a dreadful mistake.
If you do have a partner and children, on the other hand, maybe you need to re-evaluate the time you spend with them and the amount of effort you put into these relationships. Maybe you take them for granted and need to shift attention away from career and onto those who love you.
Next, consider work and career. The most obvious question would be whether or not you are happy. But remember, happiness is not the same as fulfilment. You can be happy in your job – a boss you respect, pleasant work colleagues, reasonable pay, etc. – but find the work itself dull, mundane, and unfulfilling. Maybe you have a college degree or some kind of specialist training that you’ve never had the chance to use. Or maybe the reverse is true and you enjoy the work but cannot bear the people you work with, or find it impossible to maintain a decent standard of living on the wages you earn.
Consider your priorities. For some, money is everything and they will quite literally work themselves to death in order to provide a better life for themselves and their family. Some will push themselves to a nervous breakdown just for the status their career brings. Others want a job that challenges and fulfils them. Or their priority is being useful and contributing to society in some way. Then again, many just want a quiet life and don’t care what the work is so long as it is easy and stress-free.
You need to carefully consider such matters before you set new goals. Finally, keep in mind that it is now easier than ever to work from home. Many people find this enormously appealing, either because they cannot stand the stress and hassle of a commute, or because they are introverted or socially anxious and find an office environment unbearable.
Whatever goals you choose, make them realistic. A big danger in midlife is panicking and then making sudden, drastic changes. As someone once joked, every milestone birthday comes as a surprise. And this is very true. Most people dislike ageing, and are appalled at the way time seems to speed up once they reach their 30s and 40s. To cope, they live in denial, straining backwards and convincing themselves that they are still young. Then, on their 40th or 50th birthday, a kind of panic sets in and, to everyone’s amazement, they quit a successful career, divorce their life partner, or start a family with a man they’ve only just met. If you have just reached one of those dreaded birthdays, you could write your new goals down, put them under lock and key, and then return to them after a month and see if you still feel the same way.