How to Avoid a Midlife Crisis and Celebrate This Phase of Life

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My teenage daughter recently asked me what my favorite decade has been so far. “This one,” I told her. “My 50s.” She stared at me in disbelief. “But you’re middle-aged,” she said.

Midlife — which, according to the American Psychological Association, spans from 36 to 64 — is known as a high-stress era of lost youth, declining health, job pressures and caretaking. This is all true, but I still like it.

I feel stronger and more confident, and I have less angst. My parents are still with me, and so are most of my friends. I know loss is coming, but that realization doesn’t overshadow my joy.

When most of us hear the word “midlife,” though, we probably think of “crisis,” said Margie Lachman, a professor of psychology at Brandeis University who studies this time in our lives. “It’s just this universal association, which is unfortunate,” she said.

But not everyone succumbs to the clichés of leaving a job or buying a sports car. Midlife crises aren’t inevitable. (Research suggests that only 10 to 20 percent of people experience them.) So how do we make this time more a celebration than an implosion? I asked the experts for advice.

Yes, midlife can bring more stress, but it can also bring self-acceptance. “You sort of know who you are,” Dr. Lachman said, “and you’re comfortable in your own skin.”

During the so-called afternoon of life, we often shift our focus from what has been called the “résumé” qualities of our youth (what we do) to “eulogy” qualities (who we are), said Chip Conley, author of “Learning to Love Midlife.” But making that shift isn’t always automatic, so Conley suggested an exercise.

List old identities that no longer reflect who you are. Perhaps you formed an image of yourself in your earlier years that no longer fits — a people pleaser, obsessively career-driven, the family screw-up.

Then jot down any outdated beliefs from your youth that no longer apply. When you’re done, throw the list away. This acknowledges who you were while creating room for new identities, he said.

If possible, try something you’ve always wanted to do. If you have the resources, book that quirky trip: a tour of abandoned Cold War sites (my middle-aged husband’s idea of a rollicking time), a birding expedition, the Hallmark Channel Christmas Cruise.

Conley suggested asking yourself: Ten years from now, what will I regret not learning or doing? “That’s how I learned to surf at age 57,” he said. Instead of focusing on the challenges of this age, which are largely out of your control, he said, explore ways you can learn and grow.

A friend of mine joined a ghost-hunting meet-up. Another, who has always loved singing, is part of a Britpop choir. My brother-in-law, a chef, set up a mushroom cave in his basement. “I’m owning that I’m ‘Mushroom Guy,’” he said.

Mark the transitions that make midlife unique, Conley said. Throw an empty-nest party when your last child leaves home. If you’ve hit menopause — the average age is 51 — have a “menopause shower” where you trade tips on coping with symptoms.

And don’t avoid your 50th birthday, Conley said; instead, do something special (“and no jokey cards about how it’s all downhill”). Invite a few similarly aged friends to a dinner and have them bring photos from each decade of their lives. Then take turns talking about what was going on during those times, he suggested. Or host a mini-reunion of friends from another era.

Throughout adulthood, our social lives tend to shrink as we immerse ourselves in jobs or family life, Dr. Lachman said. But during midlife, Conley said, friends aren’t a “‘nice to have,’ they’re a ‘need to have.’”

Kids grow up and move out, divorce rates rise among those over 50 and health problems tend to increase. Friendships are key to our psychological and physical well-being, said Rosanne Leipzig, a professor of internal medicine and palliative medicine at Mount Sinai and author of “Honest Aging.”

“Friendships set you up for the future,” Dr. Leipzig said. And they fill a social gap, she added, “because there are plenty of things that you really can’t say to your family that you can say to friends.”

One of the delights of this age, Conley said, is that conversations with friends are often more meaningful. “We don’t have time to waste, so we’re tired of small talk,” he said. “We’re ready for the big talks.”


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