‘It’s easier now to shrug off failure’

The New York Times has an article by contributing opinion writer Margaret Renkl that beautifully expresses some of the equilibrating changes that come in late adulthood. The piece is framed as “The Gift of Menopause”— no doubt a truthful reflection of the author’s subjective experience, but menopause probably has less to do with it than she thinks. The emotional changes which Renkl describes are typical for men and women alike; as far as I know, there are no big gender differences. Our values and brains change with age, in many ways for the better. I am experiencing some of these changes myself, and as far as I know I’m not menopausal!

Be that as it may, Renkl’s observations are right on target—and track closely with what research shows about emotional changes that come with aging…

Less regret and social competitiveness: “It’s easier now to shrug off failure. It’s easier to shrug off most other things, too: missed opportunities, the unwarranted anger of others, fear of looking like a fool. A person who is not afraid of looking like a fool gets to do a lot more dancing.”

More focus on what matters most: “Life is full of obligations that can’t be shirked, but always there are ‘obligations’ I’m not obliged to do. No, I don’t want to sit on that panel. No, I don’t want to attend that fund-raiser. No, I don’t want to go to that party. The days are running out, faster and faster, and I have learned that every yes I say to something I don’t want to do inevitably means saying no to something that matters to me far more — time with my family, time with my friends, time in the woods, time with a book.”

Less volatility, more loving connection: “The pyrotechnics of youth may be gone, but I have learned that there’s no aphrodisiac like long love, like the feeling of knowing and being known, of belonging to a beloved’s body as fully as you belong to your own.”

Prioritizing loving relationships over climbing the greasy social pole, worrying less about others’ judgments, experiencing less regret — all are good for wellbeing and can more than offset the physical losses that come with aging. I heard these themes again and again in my interviews, and they show up consistently in research by Laura Carstensen and others. The notion that aging is a process of loss, decline, and sad relinquishment is a myth. Aging brings emotional benefits all its own, and you don’t need menopause to reap them.