Contributing to Your World
According to Dr. Gene Cohen, director of the Center on Aging, Health, and Humanities at George Washington University, age forty brings a developmental stage called “midlife evaluation.” He describes this stage as a time of quest, where you consider where you've been and where you are going, and where you explore the opportunity to make course corrections to get where you want to be. Many people, men and women, find themselves thinking of their world in a broader sense. If you find yourself drawn to finding meaning by contributing to some larger entity, rest assured that you are developmentally right on track.
Defining Your “Contribution”
Women sometimes ask themselves at this stage, “Haven't I contributed enough? I've lived my whole life for other people.” And in many cases this is true. Midlife is the time when your brain development and circumstances may offer you the first chance you've had to really examine where your contributions of time and energy go, and how you want to “spend” them. Instead of doing what you “have to” do, you can actually find things you “get to” do. Contributing can mean many things. Maybe you have always played the piano, and now want to be part of a community theater group where your talent can be part of a larger effort. Or you have the time to join a quilting group that makes quilts for soldiers overseas. Maybe you like to write, and now you'd like to edit the newsletter for a local organization that you believe in. This may be the time when you volunteer with a church group going abroad to build safe water supplies in developing countries. Whatever your areas of interest, you may find yourself playing with ideas about how to pursue those interests and make a positive difference somewhere.
The next developmental phase is called the “liberation phase.” This can be a very productive time of life, when people begin to ask, “If not now, when?” With brain development (dendrite growth) accelerating, people discover themselves solving problems in new ways, and — here's the great part — caring less and less what other people think! So it is an exciting convergence of mental ability and freedom from the conventional and cultural limits that have kept you from exploring. Since women are particularly sensitive to cultural expectations, they tend to experience this as unexpectedly freeing. Suddenly you are not concerned what the neighbors will think if you spend your vacation volunteering with the Red Cross or go off with a friend to an exotic location and rediscover who you really are.
Fulfillment is a personal thing, and what fulfills you might be unappealing to someone else. But during this phase of your life, you may find yourself excited about the endless possibilities for pushing the envelope. If you see this as a delightful and normal stage, you will be able to give yourself permission to define fulfillment in your own terms. You may find yourself explaining to friends and family (or yourself!) that you are not crazy. Indeed, you are just enjoying the liberation that comes with this new stage of life.
A New Kind of Intelligence
Given the changes in older brain development, experience, and social understanding, it is theorized that in midlife people develop a new, more integrated, system of interacting in the world. Researchers looking at brain plasticity — the ability to adapt and change in the face of challenges — are finding that as your brain compensates for some loss in cognitive tasks, you are developing whole new connections within your brain. These new ways of operating seem to integrate tasks that were previously managed separately, thus showing new perspectives. This process is probably the source of judgment and wisdom that were lacking in youth. You're not getting older, you're getting wiser!