Longtime NPR religion correspondent Barbara Bradley Hagerty’s newest book, Life: Reimagined, is a data-packed inquiry into the myth of the midlife crisis. The personal exploration is a new one for the reporter, more used to investigating on others’ stories, beliefs, and behaviors. In Life: Reimagined, Hagerty approaches midlife with humility and humor (perhaps not surprising for a writer whose online portfolio begins, “Welcome to my website, where I detail all of my accomplishments and none of my failings...”) — and surfaces with a hopeful take on the realignments we all face as we age.
Hagerty recently sat down with Sojourners for a conversation on how to faithfully deal with unmet expectations, and what it takes to build a life of meaning.
Catherine Woodiwiss, Sojourners: What's so scary to people about midlife?
Barbara Bradley Hagerty, author, Life: Reimagined: There’s a kind of cultural myth that everyone has to have a midlife crisis. That you're going to get incredibly dissatisfied with everything about your life —you’ll look at your spouse and go, "Who's that? I'm bored with you," or your job and go, "Ah I've been doing this forever — is this all there is?" That's the existential question of midlife: Is this all there is?
But only about ten percent of people have this existential angst. When psychologists started talking to people in the 1990s, they found most people have a dip in happiness — for women in America it's about age 40 and for men it's about age 50. You can expect that. But it's not crisis — it's more of a time of pivoting. … Almost everyone makes that transition. Some people just make it more intentionally than others.
Woodiwiss: Your book is very hopeful about this season of life. Was that the aim going in?
Hagerty: No, I actually didn't know what I was going to find. …I was basically floating on the edge of a midlife crisis when I started the research on this book. My mom had just had a stroke. She's my best friend. We weren't sure she would ever talk again. And there she is in the ICU kind of hanging on for dear life. I came home from the ICU and it was just an absolutely beautiful day in May, and … my husband and I were making dinner — and I looked out the window … and I felt nothing. Nothing. I felt just flat. I felt kind of depressed. And I looked at my husband, and I said, "I think I'm having a midlife crisis." …And he goes, "Don't do that. Don't have a midlife crisis."
So the next morning I got up and I decided to do the research: Is there such a thing as a midlife crisis? How do I get out of it? Going in I thought I would find a pretty sober tale. And in fact that's just not what the science says. It shows that the people who are really happy at midlife make a significant change of what they focus on. [So], you have a choice. You can choose to have a really crummy midlife and beyond. That is a choice that you can make.
Woodiwiss: I see more and more talk around a “quarter-life crisis” now. My generation is articulating some of these same questions of life work and identity — is this all there is? — but not necessarily with the same stages-of-life concerns yet (taking care of aging parents, marriage, children). What have you observed about these two “crises”? Do you have any advice for people going through the quarter-life stage?
Hagerty: Some of the existential questions are the same: “Why am I here on earth? Will I find anyone to love me?” …In some way, millennials are unshackled by convention. Because of the economic uncertainty, because they can't really count on a job or a title to give them their identity, I think they have to find it elsewhere. And as hard as that may be, I think it's actually a gift. Because they're actually being forced to learn the lessons that Baby Boomers learned in their 50s and 60s, and that lesson is that you seek meaningful activities. Millennials seem to have a more generative and selfless side of them being developed in early years.
So for all those millennials who are having this deep crisis, I think you're facing into this crisis earlier than the rest of us did.
Woodiwiss: There may be hope to avoid one later!
Hagerty: Oh my gosh, yeah, I absolutely think there's hope to avoid one later. …Valuing meaning over short-term happiness [is] helpful for the long run, however old you are. That's a principle that gets you through life really, really well — no matter when you start to apply it.
Woodiwiss: A few months ago I spoke with Diana Butler Bass, a theologian and academic who recently wrote a book not on her career specialties, but on spirituality. She articulated this desire to shift from educating younger generations to learning from and listening to them. Life: Reimagined strikes me as curious in the same vein.
And other writers — Andrew Sullivan, David Brooks — are publicly saying, wait, this isn’t the life I want, and shifting more from constant political commentary to a quest for value or character. There’s this sort of renaissance of reclaiming meaning in a cool way.
In terms of re-evaluating and taking stock of career, among your colleagues have you noticed a gender breakdown, or does it seem to be pretty universal?
Hagerty: You know what's surprising is that it seems to be pretty universal. The major difference that the psychologists and scientists and researchers I've talked to have pointed out is really time. …Women, I think, have had to grapple with those issues a little bit earlier, partly because often they had children, and they had to kind of reassess identity. But I think everyone goes through it.
I think you're absolutely right, though, that a lot of people shift from the academic or the didactic — “I'm going to tell you about politics or what you need to know about religion,” or whatever — to realizing that the older you get, the less you know.
Woodiwiss: I appreciate you articulating the process of determining not only, “What do I want for my career, and how do I want to live with purpose?” but also, “What are my terms, what is required for a good life for me, and how do I work to make that happen and for those I love and for my community?” And not in a self-centered way, but a very intentional one. I do see that with people in their 20s and 30s, myself included — we want to be excellent, and successful, and make a difference, and we also want to do it in a way that doesn't feel like it's killing or crushing other parts of ourselves.
Hagerty: It is. It is so wonderful to watch. It really is. Your generation of women is benefiting from my generation's experience. For a lot of us, especially in high-intensity careers with something like NPR, a lot of women in my generation just didn’t have kids, [because] the only way they could have kids was to leave. …You had to work really, really, really, really hard and work all sorts of hours and things like that. And it wasn't conducive to family. Your generation has said, "Wait a minute, that's really a false bargain. We're not going to settle for that.” You don't have to hive off one part of your life the way a lot of women in my generation did.
Woodiwiss: You’re a former religion reporter, and I also know that faith is important to you personally. Did you explore religious dimensions of these questions? How has religion played in to this process for you?
Hagerty: I thought about it. I had a chapter called "Midfaith Crisis," and I ended up taking it out of the book — it felt too different from all the others, which have psychology, neurology, all this science in them. …It also felt too important to just sandwich between marriage and career. It felt too deep.
But I have thought about the issues a lot, because it's my experience, observationally and personally, that people of faith go through the same kind of U curve, the same ennui that you experience psychologically. …. this malaise, this sense that you're praying and no one's listening, that the honeymoon is over. Those really rich feelings during prayer or everyday life — that God is here and present in this moment, “I feel the palpable presence of the Holy Spirit” — for most people, I think that ebbs. I think that's part of the plan.
… I talked to a group of nuns who are in their 50s, 60s, 70s, and 80s, because I figured they had a dog in this fight — if they lost their faith it actually would matter. What do you do when stuff gets boring or dull or hard? To a nun, their answer was the same — sometimes you don't feel God, and you just keep going. It's a relationship.
Woodiwiss: Has writing this book brought you closer to your understanding of faith, or an acceptance of life's ebbs and flows?
Hagerty: One of the really surprising things to me is that people from churches — pastors, ministers, spiritual discipleship groups — have gotten in touch with me because they think it's a really spiritual book. I mention I'm a Christian, but there's nothing overtly spiritual in it. …I think there is a sense of eternity in the book, because when you choose purpose and meaning over short-term happiness, that's not just choosing it for the next forty years of your life. It actually has ripple effects down through the generations… and that's a little foretaste of eternity.