Wiser and Happier?

Getting older isn't as bad as it seems—on the contrary, it has its perks. Plus: How your sense of happiness changes as you age, midlife crisis myths, and ancient wisdom about aging.

What's in a Number? Pondering the "Big" Birthdays

What does turning 40 mean?

Thanks, buddy.
Today I turn 40. What does that mean?

Well, for one thing, it means that I am old enough to remember mechanical odometers on cars. I remember the thrill that the whole family would get when we had driven another 10,000 miles and we could see all the little wheels with numbers turn over at once, all the zeroes lining up for the last time until the next 10,000 miles passed.

We make such a big deal these days over dates like 11-11-11 (or, if you're in Europe, 11-11-11). Those numerological coincidences are meaningless, unlike the turning over of the odometer or the "big" birthdays, when all of a sudden there's a zero in your age. (If you're lucky, you have two—and Willard Scott will find you.) Of course, thinking about zeroes also reminds me that I'm old enough to remember rotary dial phones, and what a pain it was to dial a '0.' (You could go make a sandwich while that sucker clicked its way back around.)

It isn't the number that matters, really. (I've been telling myself that a lot lately.) As a good friend told me, 40 is the new 30—not that 30 was all that great either, but oh well. As I was saying... it isn't the number that matters but the opportunity it gives us for reflection. It gives us a chance to stop and think about what we've done, what we have yet to do--and the time we have left to do it. (I already engaged in a little of that over at the Good Men Project. Old folks like to wake up early, you see.)

We do that every January 1, of course, but birthdays, especially the ones that end in zeroes, enable uniquely personal reflection. These "big" birthdays are benchmarks, allowing us to chop our lives into nice 10-year blocks, spans of time over which we can really track the paths we've taken, as well as choosing the path we'll follow over the next ten years. And the best thing that birthdays can remind you of is that the path you will take is up to you. (Now I'm just channeling Oh, the Places You'll Go!—you probably got a copy for graduation, go look for it. It's great, really.)


I've never really celebrated my birthday, although my colleagues at work had a "surprise" birthday for me before the fall semester ended. (Speaking of which, my secretary emailed earlier this morning to say, "Don't be depressed, it is just a number. The ladies like a mature man." She's just kidding—she knows better than anyone that I'm anything but mature.) Today, however, I'll enjoy walking around Manhattan with a good friend, including lunch at a restaurant known for their cold beet soup. (Gotta leave something for my 50th, right?)

I was with this same friend in a Starbucks recently, and while she was putting cream and sugar in her Cafe Americano, a woman struck up a conversation with us. After talking about her home state of Maine for a while, she turned to my friend and asked where she was from. My friend answered, "the Ukraine," after which I looked at the woman and said, with a perfectly straight face, "mail order catalog." The woman froze for a few seconds, then forced a smile and said, "well... that's one way to go, I guess."

(See what I mean about being mature? Ha.)

Of course, that wasn't the "way to go" I chose—I'm still figuring out which way I'm going, both in love and more generally in life. I don't know what I'm going to do with my next ten years, but whatever life tosses at me I will face it with lightness in my heart and a joke at the ready. I've never been one to worry—wei wu wei and all—and I don't plan to start.

Well, not for another ten years, at least.


For a select list of my previous Psychology Today posts, see here.

You can follow me on Twitter and also at the following blogs: Economics and Ethics, The Comics Professor, and my homepage/blog