Ideas for recreating your life
In “Life Reimagined – The Science, Art, and Opportunity of Midlife,” NPR reporter Barbara Bradley Hagerty shares the story of her own middle age challenges. She writes with humor and honesty about her concerns about aging and her efforts to rethink her career. And at the same time she takes a deep dive into cutting-edge research that could change how you think about life for people in their 40’s, 50’s and beyond.

After interviewing more than 400 people, including a range of experts, Barb concluded that midlife is often misunderstood and that, in fact, current research offers much good news. For example, her book describes how:

•We get happier. There is evidence, including a massive 2008 study, that the happiness curve is U-shaped. Typically, Americans’ sense of well-being reaches a low point during their mid-40’s, then they cheer up in their 50’s and continue to grow happier through their 70’s.

•Your brain can keep growing. While your memory and some brain processes may start to deteriorate before you are even 30, in some ways you can keep getting smarter well into old age. If you challenge yourself with activities that are both new to you and complex, your knowledge, expertise, wisdom and ability to navigate life can continue to expand. And if you keep up your physical exercise, like walking, you can increase the area of your brain associated with memory.

•Variety is the spice of married life. While there is an increasing trend of middle age divorce, it doesn’t have to be that way. One secret to escaping the “Gray Divorce Revolution” is to keep your marriage fresh by adding novelty to your routine. Barb and her husband tested this advice by renting an RV and taking a trip down the Blue Ridge Parkway. It’s not the novelty everyone would choose, but for them it seemed to be a lot of fun. Another key to avoiding the marriage slump is for you and your spouse to consistently think of yourselves as team.

“Life Reimagined” is not a how-to book, but it contains much insight, learning and good advice. In particular, it may inspire you to:

•Work on friendship. Research demonstrates that having friends can increase your life span. Middle age can be a lonely time, and people with few friends are more likely than connected people to die from any number of maladies. On the other hand, there’s much evidence that highly resilient people tend to have very good social networks. Having friends can boost your health, preserve your memory, support your career and ease the aging process.

•Give back. Setting your sights on immediate gratification soon becomes unsatisfying. The thrill of a short-term pleasure, like a new dress or a great dinner, fades away quickly and soon you feel needy again. Healthy middle age is marked by the development of what psychologists call “generativity.” That occurs when we stop focusing on acquiring and begin to invest outward. We may want to become active in the community, nurture the next generation or support a cause. It can make you feel wonderful when you find a way to give something of yourself.

I had the pleasure to spend time with Barb as she worked on her concluding chapter, on the meaning of work. She wanted to observe a career transition through the lens of executive coaching. We recruited Nancy Augustine, an accomplished 48-year-old visiting professor at George Washington University, to be my client. At the start, Nancy said, “I don’t want to coast through the rest of my life.” But at the time she felt stymied and didn’t know what she wanted to do next.

Over the course of six sessions, Nancy tweaked her career, finding a more satisfying role at the university and at the same time launching a consulting business. Hagerty was surprised at how well things worked out for Nancy, even without sweeping change. Nancy said, “I think a lot of it is just being clear about what I’m good at and what I want to see happen.”

Barb described the process as “progressive fine-tuning.” She wrote, “Anecdotes in the media are often this neat, but life rarely is…I think this is how Nancy and Bev charted Nancy’s future. No dramatic swings; Nancy is not leaping from law to dog therapy. She is just making tiny adjustments within the areas she excels at and loves – education, research, management, the environment, consulting — and bit by bit, she nears her mark.”

Barb concludes that, “Pivoting on your strengths beats starting from scratch.” As she conducted research and watched Nancy, Barb pivoted in her own career, leaving her full-time job at NPR to combine long-term journalism projects, like this terrific book, and special radio reports. You can hear Barb’s account of Nancy’s coaching experience, and some of her own career adjustments, in the NPR report, “Care For a Career Change-Up? These Stories Are Proof It’s Never Too Late.”