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How to Have the Best Damn Year of Your Life at 50+

My four-step guide to maximize midlife awesomeness

Smiley face illustration with man walking up stairs
Paul Spella/Getty/iStock

The day after our only kid went off to college last fall, I looked around at our empty nest with an uncomfortable thought: What the hell am I going to do now? I mean, I like my work. I love my wife. I have weird and excellent friends. But when one-third of your domestic brood disappears, you wonder: Is my life going to keep getting smaller? Or is there a way for life to actually get bigger?

For guidance, I checked in with psychologists and researchers — including several from the Human Flourishing Program at Harvard. Yes, that’s an actual thing, and yes, they call it “flourishing.” I prefer “maximizing awesomeness,” but whatever. I set out to find how I could continue having a meaningful, enriching, booming (as in boom-chakka-lakka full-throttle) life even at an age when the bands I once considered hard-core now mostly perform at bougie wineries and casinos out by the airport.

Here’s what I found, and what worked (and didn’t work) for me.

Happy Days Your Life

A global survey of 1.4 million people found that the frequency with which we laugh or smile in a given day begins to plummet at age 23. Are you gonna let Gen Z really bogart all that joy? Lara Traeger, a behavioral psychologist at Massachusetts General Hospital, says “at any age, laughter is a trigger for resilience, overall health, and just having better days.” One study found that people who wrote down three funny things that happened daily for just one week increased their overall happiness and decreased depressive symptoms for up to six months.

My results: Tracking 21 funny moments for a week — it could be anything from a social media post to something ridiculous and hilarious that happened to me or one of my friends— left me feeling lighter, brighter and more connected to my silly side.   

Don’t Rewind. Just Be Kind. 

Multiple studies show that acts of kindness increase life satisfaction and engagement, reduce anxiety, and make you feel more connected. But they shouldn’t be random acts. Flourishing researchers advise committing to doing five acts of kindness on a single day, once per week, for six weeks to gain the greatest jolt of purpose and fulfillment.

My results: Thanks for asking, handsome reader. This intervention was huge, whether it was helping the neighbor’s kid with his college essay or giving my wife a spontaneous foot rub. I actually started planning my Kindness Fridays on Mondays and the good-deed mindset lifted me all week. 

Savor the Good

Recognizing what’s positive in a situation can turn around the most miserable moments. “Developing a capacity to appreciate and find gratitude in the present sets you on a path for satisfaction,” says Jenny Roe, environmental psychologist and Director of the Center for Design & Health at the University of Virginia. She takes vigorous daily strolls in nature to bump up these levels. One 2007 study found that taking a 20-minute walk each day for one week, while noticing as many positive things as possible — researchers call it a “savoring walk” — adds up to greater contentedness by the end of the week.

My results: Mixed, honestly. This one was so low-key, it barely registered as a behavior boost. Or maybe I just live in an ugly neighborhood.  

Stuart Smalley Your Future

Think about your life in years ahead. Envision that everything has gone as well as it possibly could and that all your dreams have been realized — because you’re good enough and you’re smart enough. Now, write about what you imagined, along with concrete steps that might take you there. Even if midlife is throwing you curveballs, this straightforward flourishing-lab exercise translates in practice to increased optimism, and possibly on improved health, evidence shows. 

My results: Looking ahead, I see myself happy, successful and surrounded by love, because, doggone it, people like me!

Follow Article Topics: Health-&-Fitness