No doubt, there’s a lot of stuff going on in your life right now. Like, you could write an endless to-do list and it’d just be for today. So, it’s understandable if cultivating happiness has been pushed to the side. It’s time to get it back.
“Midlife is a very stressful time. But for most people, it’s also a really good time,” says Margie Lachman, PhD, professor of psychology at Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts. Midlife bridges the gap between the younger and older generation, which also serves as the trigger point for the stressors and joys of midlife in all its obligations, demands, and transitions, she adds.
While this time period comes with a lot of responsibility, you’ll also want to keep something important in mind: “This time does not last forever. It’s important to enjoy this period,” says Lachman. And there’s outside benefit to feeling more joy: Because your life influences so many, your personal health and happiness during midlife can have a very positive effect on those closest to you, her research points out.
Your happiness set point is driven, in part, by your genetic predisposition to experience more or less good vibes. That remains rather steady throughout the years, “but there are things you can do to shift that set point or strengthen your capacity to experience a greater level of happiness or experience happiness even during difficult times,” says Emiliana R. Simon-Thomas, PhD, science director of the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley. Here's where to start:
1. Learn about yourself
If you’ve lost touch with who you are — who you really are — over the years because you’ve been so busy being of service to others, it’s time to get that back. “Developing a loving relationship with yourself brings an inward sense of peace and fulfillment,” says Sheenie Ambardar, MD, clinical psychiatrist and psychotherapist who specializes in happiness. Write down a list of what makes you you, including things that you like about yourself. This strong sense of self helps you rely less on external stuff — things you buy, acceptance or compliments from others, likes on Instagram — for satisfaction, which can drag down your happiness.
2. Build social connection
Throughout your life, friends will come and go. Sometimes you’ll have a wide social circle, and sometimes that circle will get smaller. What’s most important is that you have a strong core of a few people who are close to you, says psychological science professor Susan Charles, PhD, at the University of California, Irvine. Close friends provide support that promotes well-being, and people who see friends a couple times per week reported higher levels of life satisfaction compared to those who got together with pals just a few times per year, according to 2020 research.
3. Find your purpose
The "hedonic treadmill" is a well-known happiness stealer. You know you’ve hopped on when you use phrases like ‘I’ll be happy when…” The problem is when you achieve the promotion, raise, the beautiful home or car, the killer wardrobe, you immediately think, well, what’s next. “It’s about never feeling satisfied,” says Elizabeth Lombardo, PhD, author of Getting Out of the Red Zone. This doesn’t mean that you stop goal-setting and striving, but rather you don’t allow them to define your sense of worth. Rather, that self-worth comes from having a purpose.
“We see purpose in life correlated with physical and mental health in men and women across adulthood,” adds Charles. You may have a sense of what your purpose is now, but if you need help identifying it, it’s the reason for your doing. Is it to care for your children? Put food on the table? Write a book that people find meaningful? Serve in your local government to improve your community? Your purpose is unique to you and what’s meaningful in your life.
4. Cultivate a community
Along with strong friendships, a sense of belonging where you live is also pivotal for overall happiness, says Charles. This is achieved by meeting with your book club, doing a weekly pickleball league, having a game night with your neighbors, or signing up to volunteer every month.
Simon-Thomas agrees, citing the Harvard Study of Adult Development. “One conclusion was that social connection was a strong and reliable predictor of happiness over the course of one’s lifetime,” she adds. If you’re lacking in that sense of community, one small place to start is by striking up small talk with strangers. “We often underestimate incidental contact with the people in our communities. It brings about a sense of collective safety,” she explains.
5. Create positive emotional experiences
One of the mistakes we often make when trying to find happiness is relying on buying stuff to get us there, says Simon-Thomas. That definitely stimulates the reward pathways in your brain every time you hit “cart check out,” but the rush doesn’t last. Rather, the things that bring about lasting joy are not materialistic, she explains. They include seeking out awe-inspiring experiences (being in nature is one accessible way to make this happen), laughing more (even if it's done by shooting your friend a funny TikTok), and discovering (or rediscovering) the things that you find mentally restoring and fun.
6. Embrace the negativity
The point of happiness at any age — especially in midlife when you’re taking on so many roles and going through major life transitions and events — is not to feel good all the time or “string together a perpetual sequence of enjoyment and pleasure,” says Simon-Thomas.
Negative emotions are normal, but pushing them away or trying to be positive or happy at all costs, a habit dubbed “toxic positivity,” truly is toxic for your emotional wellbeing. “Not forcing yourself to put on a smile is an important component of happiness,” adds Ambardar. If you are sad, be sad. If you are frustrated, acknowledge that. “Happiness is being more authentic,” she says.
7. Reassess your stress
All those minor stressors throughout the day — the tiff you had with your partner, the attitude from your teen, the passive aggressive email from your coworker — they add up. The problem is not that we have stress (it’s inevitable), it’s the way you react to these minor daily stressors that truly matters, says Charles.
Do you quietly roll your eyes at your desk and then move on? Or do you hold onto it and ruminate until you’ve turned something small into something big? “Our research shows that these reactions predict chronic and mental illness 10 years later,” she says. Practicing self-care and using breathing techniques are just a couple tools you can use to help you calm down. Also helpful: Consider what message stress is sending you. For example, it might be telling you that you need to develop boundaries or that you’re taking on too high of a workload. You can use info to make changes that help alleviate some of those chronic daily stressors.
8. Take care of yourself
You know all those late nights, fast food runs, skipped workouts, unchecked stress, and too many glasses of wine when you were younger? We’ve all been there. And you know what? It was easy to bounce back when younger. Now? Well, if it’s any indication that you can feel hungover after a single glass of wine, things are different these days.
“The remnants and residue of your earlier habits will start to show up at midlife because of aging,” says Lachman. You may notice your blood pressure or cholesterol have begun to tick up, for example. The good news is that it’s not too late. “Even though your early life does make an impact on your physical and mental wellbeing, you can still make changes that have lasting effects. And what you do in midlife has a major impact on how you age,” she explains. Now’s the time to reevaluate your habits. How are you eating? Are you sleeping enough? Are you doing the enjoyable things on this list to counteract stress? Are you engaging in daily movement? Doing strength exercises to build muscle?
9. Soak in gratitude
Gratitude is a common cornerstone of cultivating happiness. And certainly, it does bring you more into the present so you can acknowledge the positives in your life. But you can get more from it — and that’s basking in the emotion of gratitude, says Lombardo. It’s one thing to notice that it’s sunny outside, but how different does it feel when you sit out there for a minute and take a few deep breaths in? It’s the same here. Think about what you’re grateful for and then experience the feeling that it brings about. “This reduces the activity of the stress centers of your brain and is more effective than quickly jotting a few things down on paper,” she says.
10. Maintain perspective
It seems counterintuitive, but “happiness is, overall, independent of life circumstances,” says Lombardo. As you get older, you’ll experience sickness, the passing of loved ones, and other shifts that can be painful or complicated. And there’s a pervasive believe that struggling and happiness can’t coexist — but they can, and they do. There can be light and levity no matter what comes your way.