Life Reimagined: The Science, Art and Opportunity of Midlife

  • By Barbara Bradley Hagerty
  • Riverhead Books
  • 458 pp.
  • Reviewed by Paula Novash
  • March 9, 2016

This insightful book makes a compelling case for the notion that the best is yet to come

Many of us approach midlife with trepidation because we’re socialized to expect it will be characterized by decline and despair. Juggling demanding yet stagnating careers with the needs of aging parents and not-yet-fully-launched children sounds tough.

Adjusting to physical limitations and the loss of mental acuity is another less-than-jolly prospect. And wondering, along with Peggy Lee, “Is That All There Is?” — the psychological root of the dreaded midlife crisis — makes us worry that we’ll spend our forties, fifties, and sixties feeling despondent and obsolete.  

But there’s another way, as NPR correspondent Barbara Bradley Hagerty demonstrates in her inspiring and perceptive Life Reimagined: The Science, Art and Opportunity of Midlife. Utilizing scientific findings in areas such as neuroscience, psychology, and biology, and leavening it with her own life experience, Bradley Hagerty crafts a book that is part insightful analysis, part memoir, and all-around engaging and relatable.

From the research and case studies included in the book, it seems midlife has gotten a bum rap. Bradley Hagerty notes, “Researchers today who have examined people across their life spans, peered inside their brains, uncoiled their hopes and fears, and observed how they deal with love and alienation, trauma and death, good and evil, say that midlife is about renewal, not crisis.”

And she makes a compelling case that our choices — to seek novel experiences, to stay active, to invest in enriching relationships — can transform the middle years into vibrant ones, and also help us move forward into old age with a greater sense of possibility and purpose.

Bradley Hagerty identifies three helpful themes for navigating the middle years. The first is engage with verve — which, she makes clear, isn’t easy. “Of course it takes work to inject zest and vulnerability into your marriage; it takes courage to reappraise your career for not just income but also meaning; it takes effort to sharpen your aging brain.” But if focusing on the important over the urgent demands intention and energy, it also “dramatically ups the odds that your life will be rich to your final breath.”  

The second theme, choose purpose over happiness, also pays dividends over time. Pursuing long-term objectives like raising great kids or training for a marathon may not result in a jolt of joy in every moment. But working toward these goals gives you the feeling that what you’re doing matters in a big way.

The final theme is your thinking is your experience. “I am not arguing that whistling a happy tune will make you healthy, wealthy and wise,” Bradley Hagerty says, but “your approach to triumphs and defeats, joy and pain and losses, the stuff no one escapes…will absolutely color how much you enjoy the trip.”

Bradley Hagerty’s own journey is by turns instructive, poignant, and funny as she puts the information she’s discovering into practice. In the course of the chronological narrative, which covers a 14-month period in Bradley Hagerty’s mid-fifties, she trains for a high-intensity senior bicycle race to stretch her physical and mental limits. She details the coming together and moving apart of a core group of friends she’d assumed would be in her life forever. She and husband Devin infuse novelty — a spark for long-term romance — into their relationship by taking their first RV vacation.

It’s Devin Hagerty who points out to his wife that while society wants a quick fix for the challenges of aging, “You’re saying: the solution is from the inside.” Indeed — and fortunately, midlife provides abundant opportunities to change our thinking and live a more dynamic life. Bradley Hagerty reminds us, “Second and third chances routinely present themselves if you keep your eyes open.”

A few years before Bradley Hagerty began this book, she considered succumbing to midlife malaise herself. Her beloved mother, still vibrant in her nineties, had suffered a stroke, and Bradley Hagerty was dealing with a vocal-cord problem that caused chronic pain and played havoc with her on-air presence.

But, as she explains on her website, she decided instead to “tackle this problem like a story on deadline: Call the experts, find the anecdotal stories illustrating the big ideas, and explain how to chart a path to an exceptional midlife.” To our great delight and benefit, Bradley Hagerty takes us along for the ride.

Paula Novash writes articles, web copy, and literary nonfiction on topics ranging from IT to sushi and edits books, articles, and journals in fields that include medicine, linguistics, philanthropy, and neuroscience.

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