Yesterday I turned 40. If birthday greeting cards are to be believed, I’m now officially old, at the top of a hill with nowhere to look but down. But I think each decade just gets better. There are things I can do now that my younger self never could or would do.
Photo by Tomacco (Shutterstock)
Before I get all Oprah on you, I’d like to admit that there’s nothing magical about turning 40 (or 30 or any other nice round number) — other than the fact that we’ve long marked it as a mid-life turning point, when the “crisis of the 40s” supposedly starts. It’s not that I’ve been waiting until I turned 40 to learn these lessons (the way you’re supposed to wait until you’re 18 to legally drink a beer). 40 is an arbitrary number and you can learn great lessons in your 20s or 30s too.
Regardless of the actual age, though, I’ve learned it might take more than a couple of decades to get closer to becoming the kind of person you want to be and live a more satisfied life. And that getting older — or officially old — isn’t something to dread. Here’s why.
1. I Take Myself (And Others) Less Seriously
I’m a highly sensitive person and normally take everything to heart, but I was so much more emotional (or at least prone to emotional outbursts) when I was younger. I’d have ridiculous we’re-so-close-to-ending-this-friendship debates with friends, spanning everything from what’s the best Zelda game ever to whether or not humans are responsible for global warming. I was passionate about everything, an over-analyser, a perfectionist, and serious about everything.
Silly me. Getting older means learning you’re not that great and, at least for me, learning to laugh at yourself. Maybe it’s taken years of looking at images of the universe and travelling to various cities (wondering how many people live in all those giant skyscrapers) to help me get perspective. I live a small life — important to those around me, sure, and perhaps rippling in an unknown, larger way outside of my circles — but I’m still just a minuscule blip. In the grand scheme of things, not even a microscopic blip.
Oddly, this is not depressing. Being just a blip means my mistakes aren’t the end of the world. I don’t need to start or continue arguments that don’t matter at all (particularly with comment trolls). I can stop giving a fuck about others’ opinions, if those people aren’t in my tribe. And I can see myself as both a pretty flawed, often bumbling person and a valuable one without all the stress — still taking my responsibilities seriously, but myself lighter at the same time. As Eleanor Roosevelt said: “You don’t grow up until you have your first good laugh at yourself.”
2. I Have A More Balanced View Of Work
42% of Americans didn’t take a single vacation day last year. I hardly ever took time off in my 20s or 30s either. Part of it was because my career was my biggest focus at that time and it always felt like I needed more money, but I’ve also always been pretty driven. I hit a wall a few years ago — exhausted and unmotivated and I just wanted to quit everything. Yup, burnout. You can’t work tirelessly for ten years without experiencing it (especially in a job you don’t like).
So lately I’ve been planning my holidays at the start of the year — and actually take them without bringing along work or checking work email. I make a conscious effort to unplug, especially when I’m supposed to be spending time with others. I picked up painting again not too long ago, after at least a decade of not holding a paintbrush, and it reminded me to get more of a holistic view of who I am and my life. It’s hard to do that when you’re just starting out and you have to work work work to get ahead.
3. I Make Better Use Of Time
Maybe the top of the hill isn’t such a bad place to be. You get a good view of the years behind you while also realising the importance of the next few decades, really appreciating time. When you’re 24, for example, you might think you can put off saving for retirement until later, but when you’re closer to 44, you know if you don’t start doing it now, you probably never will. That goes for health (losing a few pounds), big projects (writing a novel), and just about everything else.
According to psychologist Erik Erikson, there are distinct stages of life, and the young adulthood one that starts at 19 and ends at 40 is all about intimacy versus isolation — with the goal of forming strong, intimate relationships with others. Middle adulthood, 40 to 65 years, is about creating or nurturing things that will outlast you — doing important work and raising children. Maybe it’s morbid, but I think about death a lot now and what I’ll actually leave behind, and that makes me focus more on what really matters most in life. Also, experiencing several setbacks over the last few decades — lost jobs, family and friends passing away, major surgeries — makes you realise that every day is a gift and every decade a treasure. Enjoy the everyday awesome, as Josh Martin puts it on Tiny Buddha.
4. I Enjoy Getting Older
Some people start counting down to 40 once they get to 30, as if 40 were a ticking bomb. Our culture and the media are plainly youth-obsessed. (See this NSFW Amy Schumer skit, Last Fuckable Day, for an example of age bias against women in the public eye.) Store shelves are filled with moisturisers, serums and other products that are supposed to prevent the signs of ageing.
I’m here to tell you that “old” and “older” aren’t bad words. Yesterday was the first birthday in a long time that I didn’t feel my own self-inflicted pressure to do anything about. I’m honestly happier and more at ease with myself.
I’m not saying everything’s perfect and there are no downsides to getting older (or that you’ll suddenly turn wiser with age). I worry more about every ache and pain now. I stress about having enough money for my daughter’s education, my retirement, and caring for ageing parents. I’ve got more responsibilities and commitments than ever. But I’m still looking forward to my 40s — mid-life crisis ahead or not.
If you’re approaching 40 (or whatever decade you’re getting to), don’t be afraid. Come on in, the water’s warm.