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Barbara Bradley Hagerty on the Science of Midlife and the Source of Happiness

Apr 18, 2016

Contentment hits a low in our 40s and 50s, Hagerty said. And then we begin to rebound.

When Barbara Bradley Hagerty set out to write her new book Life Reimagined, her goal was simple: learn how to avoid a midlife crisis. 

Five years later, Hagerty said she's made surprising discoveries about the impact of relationships and goals.

During an appearance on WNPR's Where We Live, she talked about the myth of the midlife crisis and how people can age with ease. She said that when people experience divorce, a death in the family, or the loss of a job, they are having a crisis at midlife -- not a midlife crisis.

The difference is that the setbacks are external, and aren't really about aging.

Hagerty said she came across a study done by economists in 75 countries that asked people of all ages whether or not they were happy. The data showed a concise trend.

"People in their 20s and 30s say that they’re happy," Hagerty said. "But then contentment seems to kind of go downhill in a U-shaped curve. It goes down; it hits its bottom in your 40s and 50s. And then what begins to happen is you reconcile. You begin to re-evaluate your life, and in your 50s, you swoop up that U curve. And so actually, people in their 70s are happier than people in their 50s.”

A part of the reason Hagerty suspected this trend was because of the demand for midlifers to understand their value and identity at work.

"There’s kind of a new math of career these days," Hagerty said. "You cannot count on being employed, obviously, by a single company or single organization for any human length of time. People have to think about themselves -- and I find this terrifying. They have to think about themselves as a company, as a brand."

Hagerty also studied the scientific significance of friendship. She traveled to the University of Virginia with a close friend and participated in an experiment where an electric ankle bracelet shocked her while she was alone, holding a stranger’s hand, and holding her friend’s hand.

While being shocked with her friend nearby, Hagerty reported that the brain scan did not show any processing of pain. For her, friendship took the stress away during the experiment.  

"I am sharing the burden of life with [friends], and it actually has a biological effect on me," Hagerty said. "It boosts my immune system. It lowers my blood pressure. It lowers my cortisone levels. It makes me live longer."

In a different study conducted at Rush Medical Center, Hagerty learned that having challenging goals in midlife creates purpose, and can prevent Alzheimer's disease. Participants that maintained close friendships and challenged themselves intellectually were able to succeed because of the meaning they created in their lives. 

"People who have a reason to get out of bed, whether it's their grandchildren or children, a political cause, their community, whatever it is, people who get out of bed in the morning basically cheat the symptoms of Alzheimer's," Hagerty said. "That tells me I have to have a reason, a purpose in life. I have to get out of bed with vigor and a long-term goal, because that is really good for my brain."