Apr 01

MidLife Crisis: No Need For That!

I had a choice. I could stumble along at the edge of a midlife crisis, or I could reimagine my life. Barbara Bradley Hagerty

New book Life Reimagined: The Science, Art, and Opportunity of Midlife, by former NPR correspondent Barbara Bradley Hagerty, came about because she’d suspected she was entering a “midlife crisis“— and she wanted to know how to navigate such an imposing hurdle.

Hagerty interviewed “an astonishing number of middle-aged men and women and the psychologists, sociologists, physicians, geneticists, and neuroscientists who study them,” and what she learned was positive and hopeful, notes Kirkus Reviews: “The experience of middle age, she has discovered, ‘is more mountaintop than valley,’ characterized not by depression but by optimism and renewal, happiness and growth.”

The themes she addresses include—but aren’t limited to—work, sense of purpose, love, and friendship. As conveyed to Metro writer Emily Laurence, the following points are five of Hagerty’s most significant:

1. The vast majority of people don’t have a midlife crisis. “…Hagerty says that not only are your career and relationships more likely to be more stable than in your 20s and 30s, but you are more resilient and able to handle a crisis better.”

2. Your state of happiness actually rises. “…(T)there is a U-shape to happiness over the course of a lifetime. Research shows that happiness is high in the 20s and 30s, and then dips in the 40s and 50s. But in your late 50s, it starts to rise again, reaching the same levels as before.”

3. You absolutely are getting smarter. “While it’s true that fluid intelligence — being able to tackle problems you’ve never seen before — starts to decline in your late 20s, scientists have found that there is another type of intelligence, crystalized intelligence, that only increases. ‘This is everything you absorb,’ Hagerty explains. ‘It’s wisdom. It’s vocabulary. It’s general learning and knowledge.'”

4. You can turn back the clock on memory loss. “…(W)e are constantly creating new brain cells, and you can preserve them through learning new things…Exercising also plays a huge role.”

5. You have control to ward off Alzheimer’s. “’The number one predictor of escaping the symptoms of Alzheimer’s is purpose in life, having a reason to get out of bed in the morning,’ Hagerty says.”

According to Paula Novash, Washington Independent Review of Books, the following themes are identified by Hagerty as particularly important:

  1. Engage with verve: It takes work and focus, “…(b)ut if focusing on the important over the urgent demands intention and energy, it also ‘dramatically ups the odds that your life will be rich to your final breath’.”
  2. Choose purpose over happiness: “…Pursuing long-term objectives like raising great kids or training for a marathon may not result in a jolt of joy in every moment. But working toward these goals gives you the feeling that what you’re doing matters in a big way” (Novash).
  3. Your thinking is your experience: “’I am not arguing that whistling a happy tune will make you healthy, wealthy and wise,’ Hagerty says, but ‘your approach to triumphs and defeats, joy and pain and losses, the stuff no one escapes…will absolutely color how much you enjoy the trip’.”

Selected Reviews

George E. Vaillant, MD: “Life Reimagined is arguably the best book on middle life ever written. Not only is it in beautiful prose, but it’s also thoroughly researched. In order to feel understood and to anticipate the future, everybody from 30 to 70 should read this book. It is a joy.”

Marc Freedman, author,The Big Shift, and CEO, Encore.org.: “This book is destined to become the bible for boomers seeking to make the most of the bonus decades opening up in midlife and beyond, as well as for those younger generations on their heels.”

Gwen Ifill, co-anchor PBS NewsHour: “With humor, heart and hard-headed reporting, Barbara Bradley Hagerty manages to strike every nerve possessed by anyone entering midlife. The good news is that you end up smiling.”

Mar 09

“The Happiness Track”: Managing Your Energy

…(T)ime is not the commodity we should be tracking and managing, Seppälä argues. Instead, we need to manage our energy. Kira M. Newman, Greater Good, about The Happiness Track

Newman above refers to Emma Seppälä, science director of the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education at Stanford University and author of The Happiness Track: How to Apply the Science of Happiness to Accelerate Your Success (2016). An elaboration on the quote:

In Seppälä‘s formulation, we drain ourselves of energy anytime we experience intense negative emotions or thoughts, or struggle against our urges and desires. If we allow ourselves a walk during lunchtime but are consumed by worries about our afternoon workload, we’ve drained energy rather than gained it—yet the same amount of time has elapsed. If we have to peel ourselves out of bed morning after morning running a sleep deficit, it takes a toll on our vitality, even though we have more waking hours to get things done.

Seppälä talks to Mary Brophy Marcus, CBS News, about an unfortunate trend in our culture: “We have accepted overextension as a way of life. We’re so addicted to an adrenaline-fueled lifestyle.” Ultimately, she adds, stress levels go up by day and then come down at night with the aid of “medicines and drink. Then the next day, we get up and what do people do when they’re tired, they drink more caffeine. We are whipping our nervous systems back and forth.”

In The Happiness Track the author names six qualities that “will contribute to both our productivity and our happiness. In effect, they’re also ways to boost energy without making big changes to our schedules” (Greater Good):

1. Full presence. “…(S)top multitasking and break free from our technological distractions, and incorporate the practices of meditation and savoring into our routine.”

2. Resilience. “…(W)e don’t give our bodies time to calm down and activate our natural resources for repair and healing. As a result, we exist in a constant state of tension that strains our body and mind. To fight the frazzle, we have to relearn the basics of taking care of ourselves: adequate sleep, healthy food, exercise, and deep breathing.”

3. Calm. “Seppälä debunks the myth that energy and calm are opposing forces. Instead, she believes calm and energy are key to productive work and a happy life…”

4. Rest.Creativity…requires rest and free time for new ideas to bubble up, interlace, and recombine…”

5. Self-compassion. “…Self-compassion inspires us to learn from failures and try again, while self-criticism might lead to giving up or denying our failures…”

6. Compassion. “…’Givers’ are liked, appreciated, and influential, as long as they set boundaries and don’t get taken advantage of. In a compassionate culture, employees are both happier and more productive. Not to mention that solid relationships at work can buffer against any stress and anxiety we experience there.”

Seppälä in person:

Selected Reviews

Daniel H. Pink, author of Drive and A Whole New Mind: “Your ideas about success are probably all wrong—and you need The Happiness Track, Dr. Emma Seppälä’s investigation into the counterintuitive factors that create career and life success. The best news of all? All these skills are well within your grasp.”

Scott Barry Kaufman, Ph.D.: “The Happiness Track provides us with a highly-readable, science-backed solution to obtaining sustainable success, the sort of success we are all really striving for, that leaves us fulfilled, happy, and healthy.”

Rick Hanson, Ph.D., author of Hardwiring Happiness: “A fast-paced, practical book with profound implications. Remarkably, happiness feels good because it is good for our health, relationships, and work…”

May 03

Psychobabble and Self-Help: A Book By Psychologist Stephen Briers

A recent book by British psychologist Stephen Briers, called Psychobabble: Exploding the Myths of the Self-Help Generation (2012), takes on the industry of self-help books.

In an interview with Lucy Walton, Female First, Briers explains:

For me the term ‘psychobabble’ is just a cheeky way of referring to what happens when ideas from psychology are hijacked and carelessly injected into the wider culture without due care and attention to what they mean or respect for the limits of our current understanding. In my experience self-help books can be amongst the worst offenders. They may adopt the language, jargon and buzz words of scientific psychology – but often there’s precious little that’s scientific about them. We dress up opinion, superstition and wishful thinking as if they stem from an established understanding of what human nature is all about.

It’s not that he’s opposed to self-help books. He just wants us to be more thoughtful and aware of what we’re being asked to swallow. Moreover, he doesn’t want us to fall for the oft-perpetrated self-help lie that life doesn’t have to be a struggle.

Briers lists the top five myths of self-help books on New Humanist. They’re listed below with descriptions excerpted from his essay:

1. The root of all your problems is low self-esteem.

All the evidence suggests that your self-esteem rating does not predict the quality of your relationships or how long they will last…The science suggests that, if our self-esteem is riding high, we may feel great, but we may also be slightly delusional.

2. You can control your life.

Life can be frightening, unpredictable and unfathomable at times…As the great mythologist Joseph Campbell shrewdly observed in The Power of Myth, ‘We must be willing to let go of the life we have planned, so as to accept the life that is waiting for us.’

3. You can never be too assertive.

Most books on assertiveness are ultimately manuals on how to gain the upper hand. They have a place but let’s not fool ourselves: passive aggression is aggression nonetheless.

4. You should let your feelings out.

…(T)here is emerging evidence that letting it all out isn’t always necessarily the best strategy. After the tragic destruction of the World Trade Center on 11 September 2001, University of Buffalo researchers found that witnesses who ignored a request to record their feelings actually fared better psychologically and physically than those who agreed to write their emotions down. And while we are routinely taught that ‘letting your anger out’ is good for us, reviewing 40 years of evidence led Professor Jeffrey Lohr, a leading clinical psychologist from the University of Arkansas, to conclude that the expression of anger actually intensifies feelings of aggression.

5. We must all strive to be happy.

Modern psychology agrees with the ancients that feelings of pleasure and contentment are the felicitous byproducts of a life well lived, rather than prizes to be grabbed directly. The 19th-century author Nathaniel Hawthorne gave us a poetic but fairly neat summary of the situation: ‘Happiness is as a butterfly which, when pursued, is always beyond our grasp, but which, if you will sit down quietly, may alight upon you.’

Why or how do psychobabble and self-help books grab our collective attention? Through fear, Briers tells Walton at Female First: “Fear of not being good enough. Fear of being out of control. Fear of being unhappy…”

If, in fact, you’re currently afraid you’re not “leaning in” enough or you’re not “vulnerable” enough or you can’t crack Dr. Phil’s “life code” or feel the “power of now,” you’re part of a large group of today’s book buyers. And that’s okay (and you’re okay). Just don’t be fooled into thinking a book is necessarily going to change your life in a significant way, Briers may tell you. “The secret” is that it rarely does.

Jan 08

Sonja Lyubomirsky: The Being of Happiness and Expectations

Instead of being frightening or depressing, your crisis points can be opportunities for renewal, growth, or meaningful change. However, how you greet them really matters: Science shows that chance does favor the prepared mind. Sonja Lyubomirsky

Yesterday’s post featured happiness researcher Sonja Lyubomirsky and her The How of Happiness. Today’s is about her newly published The Myths of Happiness: What Should Make You Happy, But Doesn’t, What Shouldn’t Make You Happy, But Does.

Sonja Lyubomirsky was already addressing this topic several years ago. In an interview with Bret L. Simmons, she was asked what she viewed as the biggest myths about happiness. While noting that there are many more, she said these were the top two:

…(1) that happiness is genetic (i.e., you either have it or you don’t) and (2) that happiness can be found in circumstantial changes (i.e., I’ll only be happy when X happens). Research shows that a large part of happiness is explained by what people do and how they think. So even when X changes, if you’re an unhappy person, you’ll still remain an unhappy person, unless you change the way you think and the way you act.

One of the main theses of this new book, then, as taken from her website, involves learning how to change one’s mindset:

Because we expect the best (or the worst) from life’s turning points, we shortsightedly place too much weight on our initial emotional responses. The Myths of Happiness empowers readers to look beyond their first response, sharing scientific evidence that often it is our mindset—not our circumstances—that matters. Central to these findings is the notion of hedonic adaptation, the fact that people are far more adaptable than they think. Even after a major life change—good or bad—we tend to return to our initial happiness level, forgetting what once made us elated or why we felt that life was so unbearable.

As in yesterday’s post, I’m listing some of the book’s best “soundbytes” (from her website):

  • “The stress of divorce is equivalent to the stress of experiencing a car crash every day over 6 months.”
  • “Does divorce harm children? Yes and no. Divorce definitely has some harmful effects on children, but these effects are often small and don’t apply to every family. For example, studies have found that 75% of children whose parents divorce suffer no long-term impediments, and that the effects of divorce on conduct problems, academics, and happiness are smaller than the effects of gender.”
  • The effects on kids of parents openly arguing and fighting is worse on them than the effects of divorce.
  • “A troubled marriage presents as big a risk factor for heart disease as a regular smoking habit.”
  • “Marital satisfaction decreases after the first baby is born and soars after the last child leaves home.”
  • “But parents experience more meaning. My colleagues and I found that parents reported more meaning and purpose in life when spending time with their children than during the rest of their days.”
  • “Is the saying true that ‘A mother can never be happier than her least happy child’? Yes. Psychologists have shown heartache from one child easily overwhelms pride over another.”
  • “Single people are better at friendships.”
  • After a job promotion, there’s a honeymoon period and then back to normal.
  • Every 90 minutes we have an “ultradian dip” (“20-minute periods of fatigue, lethargy, and difficulty concentrating.”)
  • “Money does make us happier (at least a little), but it does not lift our day-to-day emotions.”
  • “Having people in our lives we can rely on is as important a protective factor from chronic disease or death as are smoking, high blood pressure, and obesity.”
  • 90% of us have deep regrets. “People typically regret more the things they haven’t done than the things they’ve done.”
  • “Happy people make a point of noting how much better the present is than the past, while unhappy people do the opposite.”
  • The unhappiest time of life? Youth and emerging adulthood.
  • The older we get the more likely we view past things positively and overlook bad things.


Kirkus Reviews: “Her approach is well-researched and eminently pragmatic, but like the pursuit of happiness itself, it requires commitment and discipline since ‘there’s no magic formula’ for achieving bliss. Informative and engaging.”

Publishers Weekly: “’We must stop waiting for happiness, and we must stop being terrified of the potential for unhappiness,’ she notes. ‘[N]othing in life is as joy-producing or as misery-inducing as we think it is.’ While remaining sympathetic to her readers’ pain, Lyubomirsky demonstrates that positively reframing life events can mine the best out of even the darkest situations. Provocative and fresh.”

For more info about Sonja Lyubomirsky and The Myths of Happiness, including her book tour, click here.