There are a lot of causes of unhappiness in adulthood. Clinical, depression, job loss, marriage troubles, health conditions, regret, worrying, weight issues, stagnation, comparison, envy, rigidity and grief to name just a few. I think there is a way we could increase the satisfaction and happiness we all feel in our lives as we age without too much trouble. We just have to not give up.
A lot of us have given up. And that sucks. Bear with me.
I think a lot of unhappiness in this world comes from people reaching a certain age (35, 45, 55 etc) and believing that they have reached their peak. They think they’ve done all that they’re going to do that’s significant and if they haven’t accomplished it by now, well they should just give up that dream and accept the fact that they squandered their years on earth and it’s time for them to just float into their twilight years as gracefully as they can. Why should we continue to work at something you’ve always loved if you haven’t made it by 35 or 45? And why begin anything new over 55? 65? There is an overwhelming pressure and even quiet acceptance that goal setting and creative pursuits are for the super young. I think our way out of misery is by not accepting that.
Our culture values youth more than almost anything else. We put pressures on young people to figure out what they want in life and actually go out and achieve it by 25. A small motivated and well supported (affluent) portion will do this – to some degree. Maybe they really don’t want to be in finance or be a doctor but it more than pays the bills and makes them look successful. The rest spend their 20’s feeling like they don’t fit in with their peers (who all seem to have it figured out – or are at least pretending to) and they wonder why everyone else has it figured out except for them? Where did I go wrong? Why can’t I have things figured out?
We hit our 30s and we do the same thing. We’re still young, although we know that we’re old enough that admitting that we never figured out our dreams or how to reach them is not something we’re willing to do – we don’t want to look like a slacker. Many of us have children and between work and kids, we don’t even have time to dedicate to spending on our dreams or creativity in our free time. We’re just psyched if we can get 5 or 6 hours of sleep a night. By our 40s we settle into whatever careers we’ve already been working in for 20 years and feel that glimmer of “it’s way too late” to change now. By our 50’s we start thinking about when the company is going to want to lay us off for someone younger who they can pay less and get to work more hours. The thought of going after our dreams is so far in the past now, that it doesn’t even seem like it was ever something we wanted. That must have been someone else. We’re just keeping our fingers crossed that we stay employed until we’re eligible for retirement.
WTF? How can we not be unhappy with this path for most of us?
The average life expectancy of a woman in the US is 81 and of a man is 76. That means we have the potential to spend decades of our life giving up and believing we’re “done” long before it’s over.
How can that not cause people to feel awful?
Is this what you want? Me neither.
I had the same dialogue above in my head in my 20’s and early 30’s. I remember being 23 and considering applying to grad school – and already I felt I was too old (because I’d be what, a whole 2 years older than most of the other students??). Even when I went back to school and quit my job in 2013 (well into my 30’s), I was panicking that it was a huge mistake and that I was too “old” to jump ship like that. I spent all of my adult years prior to now believing that the boat had passed and a new career, ambition or hobby that was fulfilling would be too time consuming and would take too long for me to be able to do well. I pretty much started off my adult years already believing I was “old”.
If we think our lives are essentially over, growth-wise by our 30s, 40s or 50s (and yes even your 60s) that is the real problem, not our age or perceived lack of accomplishments.
While our culture may not value our years the way it does the super young or beautiful, there is no rule, no law and no restrictions on when you can start something new. It’s all in our heads.
Is it difficult to make a career change at any age? Totally. And yes, most people can’t up and quit like I did. But I’m not just speaking of career changes. Those hobbies you had while you were young that you gave up or pushed aside because you couldn’t figure out how to make a career out of them or you just didn’t have the time anymore? If you love them, make the time. Maybe you’ve always wanted to learn a new language, learn how to knit or take a surfing lesson. Why not now? Make the time. Maybe you used to love to roller skate or ride your bike. Why not do it now?
Our life’s work isn’t the series of jobs we work or what high title we earned at that job. It’s the cumulation of who we are and who we affected during our short time here on earth. That might be done at your job, but it might also be done with art, writing, serving, who and how you give your time and energy. The more we give of ourselves to pursuits that encourage the best of us, bring out our creativity and light us up, the more we will be able to contribute to this world, the more we will leave behind and the more joy and happiness we will get to enjoy while we are still here. Our imprint on the universe is not the result of where we earned a paycheck, it is where we put our energies for the whole of our time. What do you want that to be? Why stop forming that imprint when you are still in your youth with so many more years to go?
I’ve had this conversation often with many people, including my husband, about trying new things or going back to old things we’ve given up when we contemplate our “age”, preventing stagnation or where we are in our lives. He jokes that he always thought he’d be a rockstar by our age. I always tell him, “why not be one now?” and he used to look horrified. Every time I’ve suggested that he should start playing music again, I always throw in a factoid about someone else over the age of 35 who has started something new or accomplished something awesome. Now when the conversation happens, I see less horror in his face and more “maybe”. That’s good enough for me. I’m going to share with you some of those people that I share with him. Hopefully they inspire you too!
A few people who’ve accomplished awesome stuff over the age of 35:
- Grandma Moses, a well known American Folk Artist began her painting career at the age of 78.
- J.R.R. Tolkien was 45 when The Hobbit was published (and 17 and 18 years later his Lord of Rings books were published) – the guy wasn’t done yet!
- Betty Jones, a 92 year old woman from South Yorkshire, England, lost 98 lbs last year by going to the gym 5 days a week and taking swimming lessons. She is also a student Barnsley College (studying tailoring, cake decorating and healthy eating). She also decided to learn how to drive for the first time last fall. About all her accomplishments in her 90s “A lot of people seem to use age as a reason to give up, but I hope I can show them that you are never too old and you can do anything at any age.“
- James Bernard Bowler of Illinois, was (and still is) the oldest known Freshman member of the US House of Representatives, elected to office for the first time at the age of 78 (and winning his first election I might add).
- Julia Child was in her mid 30’s when she began learning about french cooking and 50 when s Mastering the Art of French Cooking was published.
- Susan Boyle was 48 when she was on Britain’s Got Talent and her debut album in 2009 became the UK’s best-selling debut album of all time. Prior to being discovered on Britain’s Got Talent, Susan’s only job had been as a trainee cook briefly in a college kitchen.
- Leslie Jones at 47 years old is the oldest actor to ever join the cast of SNL.
- Christopher Plummer won an Oscar at 82 years old (for Beginners). Jessica Tandy won at 80 years old (for Driving Miss Daisy).
- Oscar Swahn of Sweden won a gold medal in the single shot events in the 1912 Olympics at 64 years of age (he is still the oldest person to ever win a gold medal).
- Rodney Dangerfield didn’t make it big until he was on the Ed Sullivan show at 46 (and he was a last minute replacement for another performer).
- Fred Hale Sr got his driver’s license for the first time at 104 years old.
- Phyllis Diller started her stand up career at 37.
- Toni Morrison published her first novel (The Bluest Eye) when she was 40.
- John H Doc Ball was an American Surfer who was still surfing in Northern California until the end of his life at age 94.
- Dr. Clarence Nicodemus, started medical school at 57, and graduated from Michigan State University College of Osteopathic Medicine at 61 years old in 2004 and is still practicing today in Monterey, CA.
- Manoel De Oliveira, a Portuguese filmmaker (who won awards at Cannes and Venice) was still an active filmmaker the year before he passed at 106 years old.
- Vera Wang, yes that Vera Wang, didn’t start her line in the world of fashion design until she was 40 (before that she was a figure skater and journalist).
- Andrea Bocelli was 36 when his first album came out. He previously had worked as a lawyer during the day and played in piano bars at night. Singing was always his passion.
There are many many more people like this – going after really cool things at any age – we just have to look for them.
You have not accomplished your best work yet.
You are just getting started.
You haven’t gone on your greatest trip yet.
You haven’t painted your best painting.
You have yet to learn the most profound lesson of your life.
And there is still time to learn a new skill, try a new sport, take up dancing, learn to paint, volunteer at the old people’s home (even if you are the old people).
You can have many careers during your lifetime.
You don’t have to ever stop learning, creating or dreaming because of your age.
Keep creating and growing. You have so much more to give to this world before you go.
Believe that you’re just getting started and that all doors are open to you and I bet you will feel just a tiny bit more happy. Look for more proof of people doing cool things around you and grow those good feelings.
Now, what dream, goal, activity, hobby or creative pursuit have you always wanted to spend more time doing? When will you begin making time for this? How can you fit it into your current life?
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