What does 50 mean to me? Some first thoughts

As the summer of 50 approaches, I’ve got lots of friends and family asking how I feel. The answer is, aside from coming out of the worst winter of my life which was a horrible combination of polar vortex and personal sadness, I’m feeling pretty darned good. (See Rough times, tough choices if you missed hearing about my very sad year.)

I’m by nature a relentless, unreasonable optimist. It’s just genetic luck of the draw. I know that. I don’t take any pride in it. I have friends and family who struggle with depression and I don’t think I’m any more virtuous than them. I’ve just inherited my mother’s sunny disposition. Though we have our bad days, we’re glass half full types.

So when I read this, it made me smile.


50There’s something right I think about the idea that you can feel younger at 50 than you do at 40. At 40 you’re busy comparing yourself, if comparing is your thing, to 20 and 30 somethings. At 50, the idea is, you look at the 60 and 70 somethings and feel young. For example, 50 is a bunch of new firsts. First seniors discount, for example! Though I confess I’m always shocked when I see that.

At 50 you’re also on the upwards trajectory in terms of well-being and happiness.

Academic researchers who work on well-being refer to the U shaped pattern of well-being. The idea is, that on average, we hit a low our mid-to-late forties and after that things int better and better. See Is Well-being U-Shaped over the Life Cycle? by David G. Blanchflower, Andrew Oswald.

Recent research has argued that psychological well-being is U-shaped through the life cycle. The difficulty with such a claim is that there are likely to be omitted cohort effects (earlier generations may have been born in, say, particularly good or bad times). Hence the apparent U may be an artifact. Using data on approximately 500,000 Americans and Europeans, this paper designs a test that makes it possible to allow for different birth-cohorts. A robust U-shape of happiness in age is found. Ceteris paribus, well-being reaches a minimum, on both sides of the Atlantic, in people’s mid to late 40s.

Why are older people happier? Good question. See Why are older people happier? for some details.

Researchers, including the authors, have found that older people shown pictures of faces or situations tend to focus on and remember the happier ones more and the negative ones less. Other studies have discovered that as people age, they seek out situations that will lift their moods — for instance, pruning social circles of friends or acquaintances who might bring them down. Still other work finds that older adults learn to let go of loss and disappointment over unachieved goals, and hew their goals toward greater wellbeing.

What makes older people happy? Everyday experiences, it turns out. Read What Makes Older People Happy  in the New York Times.

When we’re young and believe we have a long future ahead, the authors found, we prefer extraordinary experiences outside the realm of our day-to-day routines. But when we’re older and believe that our time is limited, we put more value on ordinary experiences, the stuff of which our daily lives are made.

Why? For young people trying to figure out who they want to become, extraordinary experiences help establish personal identities and are therefore prized, said Amit Bhattacharjee, the lead author of the study and a visiting assistant professor of marketing at Dartmouth College. As people become more settled, ordinary experiences become central to a sense of self and therefore more valued.

In my case I think it helps that I’ve also always liked older people. Even in my late teens and early twenties I thought older people seemed more balanced, less self-absorbed, more interesting than people my own age. My partner feels the same way. I once said I didn’t worry about getting older because he’d always liked older women. He laughed but teased that maybe he just liked women a different age than his own. Harumph.

Now, let me clarify. I’m not one of those people who feels older. I didn’t feel 30 when I was 18 or 50 when I was 25. I often feel 14 or 16. I have friends who have always seemed old and just grew into their personas. That seems to happen often to bearded, tweeded, pipe smoking male academics who look 50 from the time they’re 25. That’s not me.

I’m also excited at turning 50 because I feel like I am entering a new stage of my career. I became an Assistant Professor at 28, all going well, I think I’ll retire around 68 and so I’m just entering the second half of my working and writing life. I’m through being Department Chair and I’m back to a full time teaching and research career and I’m enjoying both lots. I have exciting new projects underway. See Feminist Philosophy Quarterly: coming soon! Exciting times ahead.

I’m an expert juggler. My daughter was born while I was in grad school and both boys pre-tenure. (This makes me unusual among women academics who mostly wait til after tenure to have kids.) The bonus is I have more free time and the prospect, for the first time, of a professional life mostly without the day to day demands of parenting. It’s not that teenagers don’t take time. They do. But they’re also now, but for one, legally adults. I can travel more and sometimes they don’t even notice.

I recently got a text message, “Hey, can you spot me a drive home from the Y?”

Me: “Um, I’m in California. I’ve been here for 3 days.”

Teen: “Guess, I’ll take the bus then. Oops.”

This beats the first email I ever received from a child when I was away at a conference. “Mum, Dad may say everything is fine but we’ve had pizza three nights in a row and the hamster died.”

The comic below and the Louis CK skit are my favourite “turning 40” funnies. There aren’t as many jokes about 50, I’m finding. Too serious. If you have a favourite, let me know.



Forty is the old age of youth; fifty the youth of old age.

Victor Hugo


12 thoughts on “What does 50 mean to me? Some first thoughts

  1. Oh, continue to look forward. Sure, some bits are dropping off, but, in the main, I have to say I’m loving my fifties. Early days, of course as I am only a year past the starting line of what you describe here as the youth of old age.

    One of the main changes for me is that I know every second of my health and time here is precious and I am trying to live each day with that in mind. That should be enough to make the fifties fabulous.


  2. What a great post! I love the story at the end about the first time you heard from a child by email when traveling. What a difference! I also love the idea of 50 being the youth of old age. Exciting perspective. I’m embracing it! Thanks for this happy post about the coming big one!

    Sent from my iPad


  3. Great and timely post! I’m turning 52 tomorrow, and have been thinking about how the 50s are different from the 40s. Professionally for me the 50s are looking very bright; I changed research areas about 9 years ago, and am feeling both comfortable and focused. I do struggle with having a 50-something body with the legacy of many sports injuries, but many things are great– cycling and xc skiing, squash are lots of fun, along with outdoorsy water activities (swimming, kayaking). And I now look forward rather than back, thinking to myself, “what can I do now to make my 60s and 70s and 80s happier and healthier” rather than “how can I compete with my 30-something friends?” Except that I’m having a bowling party for my birthday, so watch out 30-somethings! 🙂

  4. I haven’t thought too much about being in my 50’s. I did celebrate 55 on my blog a few months ago.

    I dunno. Well, let’s see a few days after b-day, I unexpectedly had my first colonoscopy. Great they even provided photos of my perfectly clear colon.

    What I do think about it is ….I wish I could retire earlier. But with job changes (which I don’t regret. It has enriched my career experience. I’ve met incredible people who were my clients.), I can’t. One become conscious when the public sector pensions are being examined /under threat, hence now there are very real changes that are prompting some boomers to retire sooner than later.

    Ah well, time to enjoy my good health and make the best of it.

  5. I turned 50 at the start of the year. I think it only matters if you know how long you are going to live for? If I was going to die at 22, then 21 would have been a bit of a depressing birthday! I don’t think about my age, just that every day is a privilege. Enjoying good health is a privilege and that is not age related. Today I am recovering one week after a hysterectomy- which means five more weeks before I can ride my bike and go to the gym. That is more important to me that being 50. Many people don’t get the opportunity to even get to 50.

  6. I agree with the comment that 50 is the youth of old age and am enjoying my early 50s. I wrote a great post late last year comparing my mothers life and mine at the same age, 53, and it was very interesting to see the differences and also the similarities. I wish you well and you are right to embrace it all.

    1. I’d love to read your post. I’ve thought about that comparison too. Is it online?

      1. Yes it’s on my blog on my all about me page, under posts I’m most proud of. Not sure if this link will work but I’ll give it a go I’d be interested in your thoughts if you get around to reading it 😊. I’ve done a whole series of them – comparing me at my daughters’ ages of 30, 28 & 25 as well as my mother. It was a great project and I learnt a lot!!

  7. I mostly look forward to getting older, although I will admit to regularly having tiny little crises when I realize that it is actually happening and there is nothing I can do about it. (And also, when I did my first triathlon in the 35-39 age group, that def. gave me pause.) Mostly I just can’t shake the feeling that I’m letting my only life pass me by.

    It’s funny to contrast my experience heading towards 40 with that of my husband, who is very chill about being in his 50s. We’ve talked about it at length and as you mention in this post, it does appear to be a function of where we are in our respective life spans. He said he went through a similar sort of thing when he was my age so I am optimistic that I will have the equanimous attitude that you and he have when I reach my 50s.

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