The truth about turning 40 (sort of)

(Warning: contains clichés and pseudo-inspirational babble)

A weird thing happened the other day. I woke up and realized that I was in my late 30s. Not sure how I got here – only yesterday I was freaking out about turning 30, and suddenly, out of nowhere, I came face to face with the big 4-0. The realization that I was closer to 40 than 35 was overwhelming. Time didn’t seem endless anymore and I felt totally unprepared. So I did the only reasonable thing when confronted with a big unknown – I employed advanced google-fu.

google search for 'why is turning 40'
not the most optimistic search predictions…

What did I learn?

The initial search results didn’t do much to soothe my anxiety.

  • First, I discovered that the 40s are considered to be middle-age. MIDDLE-AGE! I was shocked and perplexed. How could I be close to being middle-age when I still felt like an impostor at adulting!? Surely this was a mistake, right? RIGHT? Well, not exactly. When I started doing the actual math (you know 40 + 40 = 80, 49 + 49 = 98) I had to accept that the 40s are actually the middle of life for most of us.
  • Next, I learned about the U-shaped happiness curve (and more here). Apparently we are generally happy as kids, but our perceived happiness declines steadily from early adulthood, reaching its lowest point in the 40s, before increasing again in the older age. So, statistically, the 40s are the most unhappy time in human life.
The midlife low point in the life cycle of human happiness.
My very scientific rendition of the happiness curve.
  • Finally, I discovered the lists. So many lists! The ’15 things nobody tells you about the 40s’ and ’20 things you need to know before turning 40′ lists. Lists full of detailed descriptions of physical and mental deterioration, wrinkles, forgetfulness, random pain in different body parts, slow metabolism, menopause – oh the joy! So much to look forward to! And then, I found the bucket lists. Lists of things that everyone should accomplish before turning 40. It appeared that I was about to cross some invisible line and suddenly my body was going to start breaking down.

The internet seemed pretty much unanimous – turning 40 was a major milestone and apparently I was approaching years of misery. After a period of feeling sorry for myself and basically expecting the mid-life crisis to kick in any second, I decided I would not become a victim of a decade marker. There had to be a way to avoid the black hole and beat the statistical averages!

Why are we so scared of turning 40?

What’s at the root of this 40-phobia? Is 40 really such a milestone? What is so special about turning 40 anyway?

First of all, 40 is undebatably adulthood. The societal norms tell us that fun, adventurous life has an expiration date. The culturally inherited belief is that by 40 we should all be responsible and productive members of the society and pros at adulting in crisp ironed shirts, right? Well, to be honest, I suspect that many people in their 80s are still trying to get their shit together and figure things out.

When you realize that 40 is closer to 50 than 20, it is impossible to avoid thinking about your own mortality. Half of your life is most likely behind you. There are also the neuroses and sexist perspectives of our society basically saying that a woman is no longer interesting over 40. The feeling of time running out can be debilitating. We are all going to die. I used to think, “I can do it next year. I have lots of time.” Well, I no longer feel like I have lots of time, and it scares me. A lot.

When you are young you look forward to things, to experiences, to ‘firsts’ – first kiss, first job, first flat, first solo trip to a new place, first race, first mountain summit. Then, at some point, life begins to consist of more ‘lasts’ than ‘firsts’ – last day of school, last night in your childhood home, last episode of Breaking Bad, last conversation with a grandparent…and a parent.

Suddenly you say goodbye more often than you say hello.

Shifting perspective

The 20-year-old me made some stupid, shitty decisions. She spent a lot of time hating herself, fighting an eating disorder and being insecure. And I remember the panic I felt when I was turning 30. Or actually, I remember refusing to turn 30 and totally ignoring that birthday. I felt so lost. As I’ve gotten older (sic!), I’ve done a much better job at resisting the externally imposed timelines and making decisions based on what’s right for me. There is no reason I should live the life others expect me to live. The worries and insecurities that used to keep me up at night are now like water off a duck’s back.

Forty should not feel like the end

When I started researching turning 40, and I found the multitude of lists, I thought I should make my own ’40 before 40′ list – forty challenges I would complete before turning 40. My mind was whirling with ideas. I immediately started writing them down and day-dreaming about completing all these amazing adventures. However, soon I started to get stressed out by having so little time to accomplish everything I wanted. Eventually, the list began to feel more like an anxiety-inducing nightmare than an exciting new project. The longer I thought about it, the more I disliked the idea of locking myself within such a limited timeframe.

I had to ask myself: do I really want to think about turning 40 with fear and dread – like it’s the end of the fun part of life – making a bucket list of things I want to achieve before it’s too late? I never want to run out of ‘firsts’. Can I revise my views on the grimness of growing older and instead get busy living, setting new goals, finding new ‘firsts’? Can I enter this new decade with excitement over what’s to come – and make a commitment to continuously keep learning new skills, trying new things, achieving things far out of my comfort zone, for as long as I walk this earth?

Life is an experience, not a destination and turning 40 should not feel like the end. It may seem convenient to compartmentalize human life into neat packages of seasons, years, and decades, with the assigned appropriate behavior, but life rarely conforms to such a tidy narrative structure. Accepting that not everyone follows the same trajectory in life has been liberating.

Do you know the feeling when every cell in your body tingles with anticipation and you feel like you can take on the world? I don’t know if the entrance into this new decade is going to be as life-altering as many smart people the internet claims it to be. What I do know is that you don’t get peace, wisdom, or a sense of accomplishment by sitting on your couch and worrying about the passing of time. So instead of worrying, it is time to figure out what the next 40 years of my life are going to be like. And go find some new ‘firsts’.

That’s the idea, at least.

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