How do you beat a midlife slump? New book explores ways to thrive

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now a new take on coping with the anxieties of middle age. It's the newest addition to the "NewsHour" Bookshelf.

Jeffrey Brown has that.

JEFFREY BROWN: Personal disappointment, a stagnating career, feelings of physical decline, the classic descriptions of a midlife crisis. But do we have that all wrong?

"Life Reimagined: The Science, Art, and Opportunity of Midlife" takes the challenge of answering that.

Author Barbara Bradley Hagerty spent nearly 20 years with NPR covering law and religion before, well, she changed her own midlife.

And welcome to you.

BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY, Author, "Life Reimagined": Thank you. It's great to be here.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, the first main finding seems to be that the so-called midlife crisis is really a kind of made-up construct.

BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY: It is.

We had this kind of cultural transformation, when everyone thought we had to have a midlife crisis. Everyone had to buy a sports car or dump their spouse or something like that. And then what happened is, in the mid-1990s, U.S. psychologists started to say, is there really such a thing as a midlife crisis? Is it common? How common is it?

And when they began to look at this, what they found is that only about 10 percent of people have a classic midlife crisis, which is this kind of existential angst about dying before you can achieve your dreams, only about 10 point.

JEFFREY BROWN: Short of that, though, everyone does go through stages, right? Everyone has turning points.

BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY: You do.

JEFFREY BROWN: You yourself had — it got you writing.

BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY: I also had one. That's right. That's right.

In fact, while midlife crisis is not all that common, midlife ennui, that kind of malaise that people have, that's actually very, very common. People generally are happy in their 20s and 30s, and then they kind of get discontented in their 40s and 50s. And then they swoop back up and they're very happy in their late kind of 50s, 60s, 70s.

And so there's this nadir at midlife, generally around 45 in America.

JEFFREY BROWN: You approach this as the reporter you are. You talked to lots of people. Right?

What struck you most about the kinds of crises, or let's call it a slump, that you would find from people? What kind of things?

BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY: This was done shortly after the 2008 recession. That was the most common trigger to this midlife slump that people had.

And, basically, if you're 50 and you lose your job, it is really hard to find another one. So, what I kind of found was, 55 is the new 65. That's what people were finding. It was very difficult.

But almost without exception, the people I talked to who were in that slump eventually did find another job, and they were much happier. And the point here that was really interesting is, people generally return to their happiness set point.

JEFFREY BROWN: Happiness set — what does that mean?

BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY: It just means that people have a certain set point.

I'm a little bit happier than my husband. If something happens to me, I will return to my happiness set point, kind of my average happiness level. His might be different from mine. Everyone has a little bit of a different one, but you return to your norm.

JEFFREY BROWN: Tell me about key findings that places like the wonderfully named Happiness Research Center in Copenhagen are coming to.

BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY: Well, what they did is, they looked at job satisfaction.

And what they found is that the key thing to job satisfaction, the most important thing is having a purpose, feeling like your job has a purpose. And so it could be either that you feel your job personally has a purpose or that you're part of an organization with a greater mission.

Purpose turns out to be like the magic bullet for happiness.

JEFFREY BROWN: Across the board?

BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY: Across the board, not just at work, but having a purpose in life tends to makes you healthier. It means that you stave off dementia better than other people.

It means that you're much less likely to have a stroke or be sick. It is a wonderful quality to have, this idea that you have purpose in life, you have a reason to get out of bed in the morning.

JEFFREY BROWN: You also are looking at people who have made changes in their lives, right?

How do you make those changes? How do you decide big things, like changing a job, for example? When is it time to — if I'm not happy at the job, what do I do next? Because that's not easy either.

BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY: Right. Right.

Now, one thing that career experts say you shouldn't do is just kind of leave your job and follow your muse. You're an accountant, and you want to be a Hollywood star. That usually doesn't work out so well.

So what you need to do is really think about, what is — what am I really good at? What do I love doing? Is there a way to pivot on that so that even within the company I work for, or the organization I work, I can do more of that than less of things I'm really bad at?

You know, if you're an editor who has been put up in management, and you don't like management, go back to being an editor. So, that's one thing.

The other thing that people can do is, while they're exploring what they want to do next, they should dip a toe in the water. And by that, I mean, they should volunteer at an organization that they think they might like. They should take classes.

I talked to one man who was an investment banker who went to divinity school at night, and now he's a minister. So that's the other thing. You should be careful about it. Look deep inside yourself and then take the leap.

JEFFREY BROWN: I have to ask you this, because the baby boom generation, and, to some degree, Gen-Xers, are famously derided for being self-absorbed, right, full of ourselves. Right?

Is this a discussion just for those who can either, A, afford it, those who are a little bit more absorbed with themselves than perhaps we should be?

BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY: Right.

Well, I must say that midlife crisis is a privileged problem to have. People who are working two jobs, both partners working two jobs, and they have kids, and they don't have really a lot of time to look deep into themselves and wonder if they're existentially happy. Right?

So it is really something for the privileged, people in the middle class or even a little wealthier, who can afford to have a midlife crisis.

JEFFREY BROWN: And this is, in part, a memoir, right?

BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY: It is.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, is in part…

BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY: It is. It is.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes.

BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY: And the reason I did it that way is because I think I wanted people to know that I was going through this too.

I looked at all the parts that I think are important in life. I looked at midlife marriage, midlife brain, midlife friendships, midlife career, that kind of thing. When bad things happen, what does resilience research say? So I looked at kind of all of these parts of my life that I thought were really, really important. And then I said, how do you thrive? How do you thrive at midlife marriage?

How do you thrive? How do you make your midlife brain be sharper? That's how I approached it.

JEFFREY BROWN: And you're doing OK?

BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY: I'm doing great.

(LAUGHTER)

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, the book is — good, because you want people to buy the book, right?

"Life Reimagined" is the book, "The Science, Art, and Opportunity of Midlife."

Barbara Bradley Hagerty, thanks so much.

BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY: It's been a pleasure. Thank you.

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