Cynthia Bowman’s financial advisor told her she was making a mistake.
Cynthia and her husband, Brad, ages 42 and 54, were self-described “seven-day-a-week workaholics.” They owned a successful furniture retail store in Los Angeles, worked long hours and commuted an hour each way. But they dreamed of living at a slower pace, spending more time with each other and their two daughters, ages 8 and 14.
Cynthia started playing a “what-if” game to get her imagination going.
"What if my husband and I walked to a cafe every day for coffee and milk together? What if we were home more for the kids? What if we did more road trips to places we haven’t seen before?" she asked herself. "What if life could be more enjoyable than it is now?"
She thought seriously about making her imagined life a reality and decided to move her family to San Sebastian, Spain. Their financial advisor told the Bowmans not to let go of their business during their prime earning years, but as she added up the numbers, Cynthia realized that with careful planning she could afford to change her family’s life.
Job instability, relationship changes, illness, death, financial crisis or other life events might force people to rearrange their lives at almost any stage. But some people deliberately choose to redefine their lives in middle age, not as a result of a stereotypical midlife crisis, but because they want to realign their path with their vision of life’s purpose.
“Before midlife, you think you have an infinite amount of time ahead of you. And at midlife you begin to realize that you don’t,” said Steven Mintz, who studies social history at the University of Texas at Austin. The realization that life is short can cause people to take stock and possibly create a future that is different from the past.
“This isn’t exactly the same thing as a midlife crisis,” Mintz said. “Midlife is a time, conceivably, of reinvention, but you’ve got to be really careful how you do that. We have long life spans now, so don’t stagnate. Seize the opportunities but just do it in a calculated manner.”
Paradox of choice
Before deciding to move to Spain, the Bowmans looked at their financial resources and added up their expected costs for food, housing and health care. They looked at schooling options for their children and employment options for themselves before they decided to sell their store.
“I saw that the money was there, and that gave me courage,” Cynthia said. Cynthia now works as a freelance journalist, and Brad is deciding what his next career move will be.
In San Sebastian, the Bowmans live a simpler, slower-paced life with fewer possessions, foregoing such common luxuries as a dishwasher. They walk to restaurants, stores and cultural venues, enjoy long lunch breaks as a family and spend time at the beach near their apartment.
They haven’t stopped thinking about the future. They still own their house in Los Angeles and are evaluating when they will return to the U.S. When they do, "I think we will be more selective of where we live and choose a community where our commute could be walking and bike-oriented. We will continue to live simply, thoughtfully and with minimal stuff," Cynthia said.
In his work as a social historian, Mintz looks not just at individual choices, but at how larger trends affect what happens to people in adulthood as well.
“The average adult will have 11 different jobs in three different career fields. This was not my grandfather’s experience," he said. "For those who marry, close to half will experience a divorce, but a very significant portion of the population will not marry at all, and they tend to go through many relationships. That’s a new experience.”
He points out that longer lives, less stability and greater freedom create a “paradox of choice.” Having more options causes making a choice to feel more stressful.
Camilla Joubert, a Vancouver-based life coach, advises clients to look at what has brought them fulfillment in the past as they make decisions about the future.
“The past offers us fantastic ways of knowing where we came from,” she said. “Look to the past as a resourceful space. Think of times when you found joy in the past, and identify what was important about that time.”
Joubert believes people are often too focused on career choices when trying to create a fulfilling life.
“People often become distressed at the thought of, ‘What is my passion? Everyone seems to have one but me,'” she said.
Changing careers may or may not bring fulfillment in midlife. It's easy to imagine the grass is greener on the other side of the cubicle wall, but if your current job provides a sense of mission, a daily challenge, opportunities to learn, access to leadership and flexibility, it's probably better than you think, according to Relevant Magazine.
Wholesale changes like those the Bowmans made may not be feasible or necessary for others. People experiencing midlife dissatisfaction might choose a new career, new relationship or new city, but sometimes it makes sense to try new things on a smaller scale.
Joubert advises people to think about what has brought them fulfillment in everyday life, and then ask, “What keeps me from doing more of this more often?” Favorite smells, colors and feelings might provide a clue about how to find joy in everyday experiences.
Writer Andrea Jarrell decided to fight midlife stagnation by trying "52 new things" the year she turned 52. She tried surfing, cut her hair short and took trips to London and India. She even asked her children to throw pies in her face.
"I've started craving that feeling of surprising myself about who I am, what my tastes are and what I'm capable of," she wrote in the Huffington Post.
In addition to finding fulfillment and fighting stagnation, people in midlife also need to come to terms with mistakes and painful experiences, according to University of California, San Francisco psychologist Tamra Greenberg.
“Midlife is a great opportunity to take stock of what you’ve accomplished and what you want to accomplish,” she said. “If you find that you’ve made some decisions that have made you unhappy, the great thing about this time in history is that you’re likely going to live a very long life. So there’s a big opportunity to think about what kinds of changes you want to make.”
Greenberg says midlife is a time for people to grieve for past mistakes as well as missed opportunities.
“Life is limited. We can’t have everything," she said. "Part of aging means that we have to grieve the things we haven’t been able to accomplish.
“The main thing is to develop a compassionate inner voice, and not beat yourself up for past mistakes,” she said. “Be very compassionate with yourself.”