An upbeat look at the joys of middle age.
Now in her 50s, journalist Hagerty (Fingerprints of God: What Science Is Learning About the Brain and Spiritual Experience, 2010), a former NPR correspondent on law and religion, debunks the idea of midlife crisis, “defined as an existential fear about impending death and lost opportunities.” From interviews with an astonishing number of middle-aged men and women and the psychologists, sociologists, physicians, geneticists, and neuroscientists who study them, Hagerty has found positive responses to her own urgent question: “how does one thrive at midlife?” The experience of middle age, she has discovered, “is more mountaintop than valley,” characterized not by depression but by optimism and renewal, happiness and growth. Organized chronologically, Hagerty’s investigation tackles a new theme for each month, including friendship, love, work, illness, sense of purpose, and, not surprisingly, memory loss. She focuses on fear of dementia, delving into scientific research and submitting to a number of brain exercises and tests; in the end, she is persuaded that even those “biologically destined to have the physical plaques and tangles of Alzheimer’s disease” will not necessarily show signs of the debility; furthermore, she believes, stimulating the mind “can build up neural defenses.” This stimulation can take the form of engaging in a challenging new activity, such as digital photography, learning a language, or quilting. A brain, some researchers insist, “can learn new skills, sharpen…memory, even grow new brain cells” throughout a person’s life. Equally important are social connections and romance. One research psychologist who studies the neurobiology of romantic love recommends injecting novelty into long-term marriages to get “a little dopamine-driven reward.” The author ends with 16 suggestions for aging well and living exuberantly. “Happiness is love,” she writes. “Full stop.”
For midlifers eager to “create a new habit of mind,” Hagerty is a rousing cheerleader.