Fifty may be the new forty, but it still feels suddenly different—ok, old— to many of us. I’m always wary of sweeping generalizations, but judging from conversations among my peers at a gym in West Hartford Center, many of us fifty-somethings have a significantly different definition of happiness than we did when we were in our late teens and twenties.
The interesting thing about my gym group is that it’s not really a group—just an eclectic assortment of individuals whose backgrounds cut across social, ethnic, racial, and religious lines, who happen to share some level of commitment to health and physical activity, and who sometimes talk to one another in various combinations while we’re working out. We may not know each other’s last names, but some of us feel very close.
What many of us are talking about as we straddle the half-century mark and straddle the adductor machine is a reassessment of our values, goals, and dreams for the future. Maybe there’s something for college bound teens to learn from such discussion, specifically in the neat summary provided by the guy working out next to me: “I’m happy, focused on just trying to live in the full knowledge of my shortcomings.”*
Now there’s something you wouldn’t hear from a high school senior or a college freshman. Teens and twenty-somethings (my 1980s self included) tend to look outside themselves to define what happiness means for them: attending the right college or graduate school, landing the right job, falling in love with the right person and starting a family, owning the right car or house. While these are laudable goals we can all relate to, notice how all of them involve EXTERNAL realities. The school, the job, the spouse, the car, the house….all these exist outside yourself. What about developing, as Thoreau said in Walden, and as my workout buddy suggests, your own “few cubic feet of flesh”?
Where does that figure in your vision of happiness? It’s like the notion of giving up looking for Mrs. Right and focusing instead on becoming Mr. Right. That’s when Mrs. Right suddenly appears.
By living in the full knowledge of his shortcomings, my friend was gesturing toward INTERNAL, rather than external, criteria for happiness. He was suggesting that he has spent some time reflecting on his character, who he is, what he believes in, what he’s good at, and, significantly, what he’s not so good at—his limits, his “shortcomings.” Taking stock of himself, he finds happiness—peace, contentment, a sense of satisfaction, joy—from moving through life with that understanding, being responsible for the energy he brings to each new situation, using his strengths to help and keeping his character defects in check.
I would encourage you to set some goals that come from internal promptings rather than external. Ask yourself, who am I? What are my strengths? What are my weaknesses? What and how can I contribute to any given situation? Rather than focusing on what you can GET out of any situation, think like a 50-year-old: what can I contribute to any given situation? Or, in the famous words attributed to Winston Churchill, “We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give.”
Finally, from the perspective of a teen or twenty-something, here’s the best part, if you can trust a bunch of fifty year olds: the more you attend to inner measures of happiness, the more external signs of happiness—the schools, the spouses, the jobs, the cars, the houses—you will likely accrue simply as byproducts of leading a well-lived life. That’s when Mrs. Right appears.
*If you like this idea, you might enjoy a book I’m currently reading called F*ck Feelings.