As we pass the halfway point of life we may begin to wonder what we will do with the rest of it. We long to explore new horizons of self-discovery and experience, but we fear the wages of age – loss, decline, disappointment. Is our glass going to be half-full or half-empty? The scale is tilted by circumstances – health, finances and luck – but it is also weighted by outlook.
Those who head toward reinvention may first notice a shift in priorities and concerns. Things that seemed so important only a few years ago – such as being on time, being popular, being on the fast track – have faded into the background. We are more interested in figuring out what really matters to us now and going forward. Letting go of stressful external demands makes us better able to chill out, to use a phrase we lived by in the ’60s. Being more attentive to internal priorities makes us more spiritual. Together these two adjustments enable us to accept the bad and appreciate the good, and that equanimity feels good.
Indeed, studies have shown repeatedly that people in their 50s, 60s and 70s are happier than those in their 20s, 30s and 40s. We simply don’t sweat the small stuff; instead we focus on discovering how precious the big stuff is. Interestingly, neuroscientists have found that the brain literally filters out minor irritations and enhances the positive perceptions and experiences. The message is: focus on the half-full glass, not the half-empty one. We may be losing strength, importance, good looks, but we are also gaining perspective, attentiveness and good humor about our situation.
As a parody of the famous “Serenity Prayer” called the “Senility Prayer” puts it, “God, grant me the senility to forget the people I never liked anyway, the good fortune to run into the ones I do, and the eyesight to tell the difference.” The glass half-full is literally about balance. Emotionally, for example, we are better able to live with contradictions and find peace within turmoil. With age, explains Laura Carstensen, founding director of the Stanford Center on Longevity, we “are more likely to experience mixed emotions, happiness and a touch of sadness at the same time. Having mixed emotions helps to regulate emotional states better than extreme emotions.” We become more accepting, less judgmental. The world that we once saw through filters of black and white, good and bad, right and wrong is now full of delightful shades of gray and new depths of understanding and empathy. Such adaptations to the limitations and challenges that age brings are also elements of “wisdom.” In fact, wisdom itself is a survival tool, according to Dr. Sherwin B. Nuland. “Though age may not necessarily bring wisdom, age nevertheless demands it,” he writes in The Art of Aging: A Doctor’s Prescription for Well-Being. “At earlier stages of our lives things tend to take care of themselves. They do not require the constant attention and watchful circumspection we come to need in order to negotiate our later decades.”
Such wisdom also applies to caring for our physical selves, according to Dr. Nuland. Our bodies, if mindfully managed, are capable of maintaining a holding pattern of wellness as we age. The more we examine our lives, the more we choose what matters over what doesn’t, the more we cherish the people who enrich our days, we eventually come to the question: what will matter about us when we are gone. Erik Erikson who pioneered the study of life stages, called this emerging interest in a legacy “generativity.” Some turn their attention to young people, grandchildren, mentees; others explore Encore careers, work that, as Encore.org, an organization that explores meaningful work in the second half of life, puts it, offers “passion, purpose, and a paycheck.” For still others it is finding and nurturing the talent, the message, the model within that expressed the best that is there. Wisdom, mindfulness, balance and tolerance bring a growing appreciation for everyday pleasures and accomplishments. I have a coffee mug with these words on it: “Each day is a gift. That’s why they call it the present.” That is why these can be the happiest and most rewarding days of our lives.
Photo Credit: WarmSleepy via Flickr
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