50 as Middle Age
Life advice from an aspiring boomer.
Posted Jan 31, 2020
The day that I turned 35, I quipped to a co-worker (slightly older than myself) that I’d reached middle age. My co-worker (maybe 38 at the time) was genuinely angered by this statement. He went on and on, telling me that 35 isn’t close to middle age these days and that I really needed to have that soak in.
In the course of the conversation, I naively asked him this: “Well, when does middle age start?”
He paused for a moment and came back with this gem: “I have no idea. But definitely not 35!”
Well, here we are 15 years later, and I turn 50 tomorrow. No presents, please. I’m more anti-materialist than you can imagine, LOL. I find richness in life experiences, mentoring the next generation of leaders, and cultivating meaningful relationships. In short, I hate stuff! But that’s a sidebar…
I’ve got to say, the last few years were something of a doozy for me. Life is full of all kinds of twists and turns, and you can’t possibly be ready for all of it. This said, one thing I have learned deeply as I’ve aged is this: Respect and learn from your elders. Living through experiences oneself is the absolute best teacher. But you can find a close second in the advice given by those who have already been there.
Tomorrow, I start the “middle age” part of my journey. As is true for just about anyone at this juncture in life, I’ve seen a lot, including:
- Close members of my world with troubling medical diagnoses;
- The death of good friends and family members;
- Trying relationship problems across a broad array of relationship types;
- Problems at work that have kept me up at night;
- And more.
Way more. The fact is that even if you live a relatively privileged, middle-class existence, life will come around with surprises for you. And they won't be all peaches and cream. Have no doubt.
As someone who is dedicated to helping members of the general public with issues in their lives, as we embark on this amazing journey of life, I figured I might have some useful thoughts—thoughts that are partly based on data collected by behavioral scientists over the years. So here goes.
Life Guidance From an Aspiring Boomer
1. Listen to your elders.
When I started my first full-time teaching job in 1997 at Western Oregon University, an older faculty member, Dr. Vic Savicki (great guy, by the way), kind of took me under his wing. We would ski together, have an occasional carbonated beverage together, and just talk. He was a great friend to me as I embarked on my journey into academia.
I found myself leaning on him when problems arose. One time, I needed a decent amount of funding for a study that I was conducting. I was stressed about this as I had no idea what to do. I asked Vic about it, and he immediately calmed me down, talked to me about on-campus methods for securing money for research, and he did it with a smile. Across my two years in Oregon, I would regularly ask Vic for guidance, and he was always helpful.
I look back now and see that there is a very simple lesson here: Listen to your elders. They have seen it all and likely have solutions to problems that you never even thought of.
2. Appreciate the fact that every person sees the world in a unique way.
One of the great lessons of work in the field of social psychology is this: People see things differently from one another. What you might see as an unforgivable action, I might see as benign. And vice versa. When conflict arises between people, the chances are that they are seeing two completely different things, even if they are in the same room as one another and looking at the same stimulus (see Ross & Nisbett, 1991)
3. Realize that your emotions evolved to guide you toward evolutionarily effective actions.
A strong trend in the behavioral sciences has been to take steps to downplay negative emotions and bolster positive emotions. As Nicole Wedberg and I argue in our new book, Positive Evolutionary Psychology: Darwin’s Guide to Living a Richer Life (2020), the human mind evolved as it did for a reason—generally to facilitate long-term reproductive success. Thus, negative emotions, such as anxiety and depression, actually have their place.
The trick is not to crush all of your negative emotions. The trick is to help harness those emotions into some kinds of positive outcomes in your world (see Guitar et al., 2018).
4. Don’t take your partner for granted.
If you are in a long-term partnership, I suggest this small relationship challenge. Sit down with your partner in a comfortable and safe place and simply ask one another: Do you think that I take you for granted? And, if so, how?
Having seen a ton of relationship-relevant things happen in my social world, I can almost guarantee that, if done from a constructive place, you will both learn things.
Human mating intelligence (see Geher & Kaufman, 2013) is not only about sex and attracting mates. It is also about cultivating long-term relationships in mutually beneficial, honest, and positive ways. Find out how you’re taking your partner for granted (and trust me, to some extent, I bet you are, likely without realizing it), and find out what you can do to make positive changes. Simple relationship advice from someone who has published pretty extensively on the topic.
5. Let your kids learn things on their own.
Sure, most parents I know are classic helicopter parents. So don’t feel bad if you find yourself fitting into this category. But maybe step back.
My wife, Kathy, and I have two kids: Megan (19) and Andrew (16). They are both incredibly confident and fun young people to be around. But gosh, if I learned anything about parenting along the way, it is to let kids figure as much out on their own as possible. And this guidance is fully consistent with the very best work in the field of evolutionary educational psychology (see Gray, 2013).
My son is naturally athletic, and our town has a great youth baseball program. Being an involved and caring dad (hey, at least I have that going for me!), I signed up to coach Andrew’s team for years. By about 4th grade, he gave signs that he didn’t like baseball. Of course, I had the “You’re good at it!” and “Stick with it” attitude.
By sixth grade, he essentially “won” this battle, and his interests switched almost entirely to music. Now, he is an amazing singer and can pretty much pick up any instrument and play it. He found his passion by himself. And he loves it. I wish I could have stepped back more when he was younger and given him space to chart his own path sooner.
6. Develop a moral constitution for yourself and let it guide your actions on a day-to-day basis.
One of the greatest predictors of success in spheres, such as work and relationships, is found in the personality trait of conscientiousness (see Cost & McCrae, 1985). This trait, which is only partly heritable (read as you can work on it!), is generally the tendency to get things done in an efficient and reliable manner, along with the tendency to keep things organized. People who score high on conscientiousness are less likely than are others to engage in infidelity and are rated as better co-workers than are their less conscientious counterparts. High conscientiousness predicts good things!
In my life, I feel that I’ve used my reasonably high level of conscientiousness to help carve out my own personal constitution or set of guiding principles. And, further, I have worked consistently to stick with these principles. I value honesty, hard work, forgiveness, and a community-oriented ethos in myself and in others.
While I’m hardly perfect (I promise you this), I do think that my conscientious approach to guiding my actions as I navigate life has been pretty useful. And please note that I’d particularly say this is useful for those of us, like myself, who do not grow up with formal religion (which kind of provides a moral code for you).
7. Don’t trespass on others when possible.
People betray each other all the time. In work contexts, friendships, relationship contexts, etc. Recent research from my research team (the New Paltz Evolutionary Psychology Lab) has found that such betrayals often have devastating social and emotional consequences (see Geher et al., 2019).
If you need a good reason to respect others in your world and to not trespass on their emotions, there you go. Forgiveness is never a guarantee. And you’re only here once.
8. Be careful about estrangements in your social world.
Similarly, be careful about cutting others out of your life. Our minds evolved to exist in small-scale communities, capped at no more than about 150 (see Dunbar, 1993). Under such small-scale conditions, estrangements would have had devastating social and emotional consequences.
Based on our research (see Geher et al., 2019), they still do. So while cutting toxic people out of one’s life may have a place, actions related to estranging someone in your world require the most deliberative and thoughtful of mental processes. In my years, I’ve seen estrangements between people lead to incredibly unpleasant and messy situations that can last for decades.
9. Kindness goes way further than you might realize.
In his classic research on human mating, David Buss (2003) found a pretty eye-opening outcome. Across the globe, young people who are looking for mates value kindness above all. This point is echoed in this recent video (60 Seconds of Sex) with the renowned clinical psychologist, Marianne Brandon.
It’s easy to forget always to be kind. In daily life, frustrations abound. Your kids might not have done their homework. Your husband may have neglected to walk the dogs. Your co-worker might have failed to complete his section of some large group task, etc.
But at the end of the day, one thing I’ve learned is that no one is perfect. Forgiveness goes a long way. And there is no such thing as too much kindness. It is one of these attributes that pays itself back over time.
10. Love truly is the answer.
Many different kinds of love exist (see Geher & Kaufman, 2013). But most forms of love have a selfless quality: putting the needs and desires of another ahead of one’s own. For some of us, this might be a perennially difficult task. And for all of us, it has to be a difficult task at least at times.
But I’ll tell you this, from the vantage point of the cusp of middle age, loving someone else genuinely is truly a gift. And to the extent that you can cultivate truly loving relationships in your world, positive things will follow.
If life were all about money, then only poor people would utilize mental health services. This is, famously, not the case. Life is not all about money. We are products of thousands of generations of evolutionary processes that ultimately have cultivated physical and behavioral adaptations that, either directly or indirectly, bear on long-term reproductive success. This includes building community along with building strong, positive, collaborative, and trusting relationships with others in your world.
As someone who is on the cusp of middle age, I want you to know that it’s no cakewalk. And that is coming from someone who has been called “overly optimistic” by dozens of people.
This said, I’d say that we’re lucky to be here at all. Each of us is, from the perspective of science, a glorious cosmic accident. A one-in-a-billion shot.
So appreciate others in your world, even if that can be trying at times, follow the golden rule, and do your best to help shape a positive future for everyone. And a final point I’ll add is this: Be ready for anything. Life has a way of biting you in the butt.
Buss, D. M. (2003). The evolution of desire: Strategies of human mating (Revised edition). New York: Basic Books.
Costa, P. T., & McCrae, R. R. (1985). The NEO Personality Inventory manual. Odessa, FL: Psychological Assessment Resources.
Dunbar, R. I. M. (1992). Neocortex size as a constraint on group size in primates. Journal of Human Evolution, 22(6), 469–493.
Geher, G., & Kaufman, S. B. (2013). Mating Intelligence Unleashed. New York: Oxford University Press.
Geher, G. & Wedberg, N. (2020). Positive Evolutionary Psychology: Darwin’s Guide to Living a Richer Life. New York: Oxford University Press. Geher, G., Rolon, V., Holler, R., Baroni, A., Gleason, M., Nitza, E., Sullivan, G., Thomson, G., & Di Santo, J. M. (2019). You’re dead to me! The evolutionary psychology of social estrangements and social transgressions. Current Psychology. doi: 10.1007/s12144-019-00381-z
Gray, P. (2013). Free to learn. New York, NY: Basic Books.
Guitar, A, E., Glass, D. J., Geher, G., & Suvak, M. K. (2018). Situation-specific emotional states: Testing Nesse and Ellsworth’s (2009) model of emotions for situations that arise in goal pursuit using virtual-world software. Current Psychology. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12144-018-9830-