News flash: Researchers asked people over 65 to pick the age they would most like to return to–most chose their 40s.
Patricia Cohen revealed this factoid in an opinion column in Sunday’s New York Times titled “Get a Midlife.” In it she asks–and answers–the question “What’s so bad about middle age?”
Cohen mused about the cultural fiction that is middle age–a story that tells us what we are losing, but little about what we gain. We have “defined wellness and happiness in terms of what was missing: health was an absence of illness; a well-adjusted psyche meant an absence of depression and dysfunction. The most recent research on middle age, by contrast, has looked at gains as well as deficits,” Cohen writes.
Cohen goes on to describe research conducted by Carol Ryff, director of the Institute on Aging at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. (Who knew this was going on in my own front yard?)
Ryff developed a list of questions that measure well-being, dividing them into categories of personal growth, autonomy, supportive social relationships, self-regard, control of one’s life, and a sense of purpose. Ryff’s survey was designed to gauge whether an individual was flourishing.
The results showed that a narrow focus on dysfunction skewed perception of midlife (just as it has perceptions of wellness and happiness). In fact, researchers discovered that our middle years are often our happiest–a time when we feel in control, have a sense of purpose, experience the supportive network of our friends, and overcome the anxiety-producing pressures of youth. We reach a “decision-making sweet spot” in which we are good at both sizing up our options and at choosing well.
A good deal of my early years were spent misunderstanding my options and choosing, how shall we say, not so well. I’ve frankly delighted with the perks of middle age so far.
Cohen concludes, “Middle-aged baby boomers and Gen Xers have something else their forebears did not: more time. With longer life spans, those in midlife have decades to recoup losses and change direction.”
At more-or-less the peak of my well-being, with decades to tweak the fine points? Oh frabjous day! Thanks, Patricia Cohen, for lifting my spirits.