Life After 50: Aging Without Angst

It's healthy and wise to examine choices and decisions you've made so far, and studying those that conjure up a twinge of regret offers the greatest opportunity for guiding your future and avoiding "midlife angst."
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"What's past is prologue," Shakespeare wrote in "The Tempest." Looking back can be helpful in understanding your present and planning your future. It's healthy and wise to examine choices and decisions you've made so far, and studying those that conjure up a twinge of regret offers the greatest opportunity for guiding your future and avoiding "midlife angst."

Conventional wisdom states that "midlife angst" most often occurs in those who are no longer happy with how they look when they peer in the mirror -- but guess what? According to my own anecdotal research, that's not the case. Most of those over 50 whom I'm in contact with, or whom I meet when I give talks about living your best life after 50, have some degree of angst because they have regrets about career paths, relationships or other "unfulfilled dreams."

Those who experience "midlife angst" run the gamut from women who left the workforce to care for children -- or a sick spouse or parent -- and are unsure how to re-enter it again, to people who have been in careers their entire lives and have always questioned whether they had made the right decision, wondering if perhaps they should have taken different paths. Or, it could be those who will always think about that relationship they had before they got married, especially if the marriage is unsatisfying. And, with some I've met, it's been as simple as regret over not having learned how to ski or knit, study an instrument or run a marathon.

The most common causes of "midlife angst" seem to be:

  • Not accomplishing what you had hoped

  • Thinking your decisions weren't always the best
  • Feeling as though you no longer control your own destiny
  • Believing you're running out of time
  • Why? Looking back and regretting decisions made -- or not made -- causes one to play that dangerous head-game of "If only I had [fill in the blank], my life would be so much better now." The idea of having made mistakes, and believing you can't get a second chance, can wreak all kinds of havoc with our emotions. For most people, it's manifested as a low hum that intrudes upon our thinking when we're contemplating our lives, causing a feeling of discomfort, or even remorse. But for many others, it can cause severe emotional stress and depression.

    It doesn't have to be this way.

    Looking back and realizing that it's OK to have made mistakes is the first big step in accepting, learning and moving forward. Past truly is prologue. There are, when you really think about it, very few decisions that cannot be remedied with some positive action. Last week I wrote about moving from thought to action in "5 Sure-Fire Ways to Turn Positive Thought into Sustainable Action," and this is a good starting point when thinking about your past decisions and how you might do things differently today.

    I pride myself on saying that I've lived a life without regrets (so far). But have I? Don't I sometimes wish I had gotten an MBA instead of studying social anthropology, stayed with the piano lessons I gave up in third grade, kept in touch with my childhood friend, wore sunscreen every day of my life, volunteered more, acted on the many ideas I had along the way, invested better, read every single classic? And that's just the short list.

    I can't turn back the clock to when I was a child and put on the sunscreen -- but I can wear it now (and I do). I can attend law school if I choose to, read any book I want, study piano or the violin and even try to locate that childhood friend. The key to looking back without regret is knowing that, if you really wanted to, you can do many of the things now that you regret not doing. And if there are decisions in your past that haunt you still (e.g., you stayed in a bad marriage too long), instead of wasting energy filled with regret, learn from them and move forward. Most importantly, the key is putting all "unfulfilled dreams" in the appropriate "boxes" in your life: those that you can still do, those that you cannot and those that you no longer care about. Then either take action or let them go.

    Just this week a thought-provoking article was published in The Wall Street Journal -- "How to Get a Real Education" -- written by the creator of the Dilbert cartoon strip, Scott Adams. Its relevance to the idea of "midlife angst" is very clear, although I'm sure Mr. Adams didn't write it for this audience. His suggestions, all of which are very practical indeed, can easily be embraced by anyone who is filled with "midlife angst" and who wants to embark on a new career, or learn an instrument, or do any of those things that are on your "unfulfilled dreams" list. Food for thought.

    Knowing that most of us have some level of "midlife angst," and our personal reasons are many, I put this question -- "Had you known then what you know now, what would you have done differently?" -- to my friends on Facebook, and I received so many responses that it was hard to choose which ones to share (with their permission). Here are a few:

    I would have finished college and gone to grad school. I also would have taken the chance when people offered me great jobs over the years that I was too afraid to take for fear of failing. I didn't realize then that trying and failing is better than never trying at all, but I do now. (Madeline Bay Lukens)

    I wish I had gone away to a large university or an elite small college to learn more about myself. In doing so, I think I could have made a better choice in my career future. I didn't know what I wanted to be when I was 18 yrs. old, it was just easy to live at home and go to school in my hometown. With a great education I could have done more with my life. (Carole Matthis Starks)

    I would have become an exercise physiologist or a sports medicine physician. (Pat Stephens Mazzei)

    I would retain -- no -- claim all of the same decisions, good and bad. Wtihout them, I would not be the person I am today and could not reflect back with the same degree of insight on my life. I have no way of changing the past, but I CAN shape my future. There is no opportunity in the past, but the present and the future are fertile ground upon which a rich life may be grown. (Terri Bunofsky)

    I would have studied harder, saved more and kept that nice apartment with the deck and big back yard. (Lisa Delalastra)

    I would have exercised more, done more sports, and applied moisturizer and sunscreen. As for the emotional part of me, I'd never change anything, because I love the person I was, am, now and always will be! (Gigi Schilling)

    I would have traveled more, then gone to college and gotten my degree instead of getting married at 19. I would have kept up better with my friends, and I would have spent more time with my grandparents. (Kathy Lamer Angeley)

    Strange as it might seem, I don't have regrets. None. The only thing I might do differently is walk a little slower, take a little more time, and look from side to side instead of always looking ahead. Close my eyes and linger. (Julie Maloney)

    I wish I had learned at an earlier age that approaching things with love in your heart makes life so much easier and enjoyable! (Nancy Poradish)

    The message is simple: We are human, and many of us have something (or many things) we wish we would have done differently. For those things that you can change, if it still matters to you, then do so. Turn the thought into action, and you'll see how quickly the angst slides away. For those things that can't possibly be changed without turning back the clock, learn from them. Hold them close to your heart for just a few moments -- because every single experience you have had and will have in your life is precious -- and then, let them go.

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    2011 New York City Marathon Countdown: 29 Weeks To Go!

    Week 1 in the Jeff Galloway Training Program: On both Saturday and Monday I ran 5 miles (with 30-second walk breaks every three minutes). On Thursday I did my first "long run" -- 6 miles (which is the entire Central Park loop). Next week, my "long run" will be 7.5 miles. So far so good.

    If you want to learn more about the Galloway Method, come to P.S. 6 (E. 81st St. and Madison Ave.) on Wednesday, April 20 from 6:15 to 7:30 p.m. Jeff Galloway will be in town for the annual "NYC Marathon Kickoff Event." I'll be there!

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    Staying connected is a powerful tool. Please "friend" me on Facebook and follow me on Twitter (BGrufferman). For more information about "The Best of Everything After 50: The Experts' Guide to Style, Sex, Health, Money and More," please visit my website, Stay well, and stay in touch.

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