At this year’s Hay Festival back in May, Paul Dolan, Professor of Behavioural Science at the London School of Economics, declared to the audience that single women without children were the happiest sub group in society. He got a resounding round of applause for his positive messages. There may even have been a few cheers and whoops.
“If you’re a man, you should probably get married; if you’re a woman, don’t bother,” he said. Cue much nodding from the unmarried women in the audience – and plenty of the married ones, too.
Professor Dolan was making a wider point about the ‘shoulds’ that we all live by in order to find happiness. The two key ones for women are that we ‘should’ be married and we ‘should’ be mothers.
It won’t surprise any midlife woman to know that these two ‘shoulds’ are not the route to a fulfilled and meaningful life. One of the joys of this age, is that you are aware of that. You’ve grown out of believing the happy ever after myths, and have more of a sense of what your own true self requires in order to be content.
The real meaning of happiness
“The happiest people on this planet have good close relationships and good social lives, whatever their sex or marital status,” says psychologist Miriam Akhtar, author of the Little Book of Happiness. “One of our strongest needs in terms of wellbeing is relatedness, meaning connection and belonging.”
As Professor Dolan confirmed, this doesn’t need to be in the form of marital bliss. “If it’s not in the form of a primary romantic relationship you need to find it somewhere else,” says Akhtar. She suggests “a network of strong emotional connections through community, warm friendships and an inner circle.”
Professor Dolan was on to something with another of his Hay pronouncements, a woman’s need for autonomy.
“There are three fundamental needs for wellbeing: autonomy, competence and relatedness,” says Akhtar. “That means a sense of personal purpose, a usefulness in that and love and closeness in relationships.” Happiness is defined as everything from euphoria to contentment and wellbeing, so how would she define it? “Feeling good, enjoyment in life and having a profound sense of meaning and purpose.”
Your midlife makeover
For Akhtar, our midlife years converge with what she calls “The Age of the Sage”. “I feel like the first half of life is about absorbing and the second about sharing,” she says. “There is so much joy in sharing and mentoring a new generation. From midlife you have a tremendous desire to serve a purpose beyond the self.”
Psychologists call this midlife urge Generativity. It’ the concept that we live in life cycles. From your 40s onwards, there is an increasing drive to take care of the next generation, the planet and make a difference in the world.
Us 50-somethings are reinventing midlife. After menopause, wellbeing grows again. There’s a lot of letting go, and, when you are no longer imprisoned by that monthly cycle, women are on a more even keel.
“We are united in wanting to make the world a better place, leave a legacy, impart wisdom and enable people,” says Akhtar, who spent her early career in radio journalism and re-trained as a psychologist in her 40s.
“By making sure that you have the balance right between these happiness archetypes – living well and doing well – then you gain this deeper font of wellbeing.
“This is a sustainable form of wellbeing. It nourishes you and continues to deliver whereas short term pleasures are great but they don’t last long.”
Happiness that lasts
This midlife sense of purpose is a modern phenomenom, says Akhtar. It’s something that our generation is the first to reap the benefits of. And it’s especially pertinent in the post-menopause years.
“Us 50-somethings are reinventing midlife,” she says. “After menopause, wellbeing grows again. There’s a lot of letting go, and, when you are no longer imprisoned by that monthly cycle, women are on a more even keel. Temperament and mood are much more level and there is less emotional volatility.”
If you still need convincing that the Age of the Sage is something to be embraced, Akhtar has this to add: “You care less what people think, your confidence has really grown. You’ve been through things before so you are not so rocked by life events, much more sanguine.”
Sanguine, sage and reinventing midlife: welcome to your happiness years.