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6 Reasons It’s Awesome to Be Middle-Aged  

Author and positive aging guru Chip Conley bills midlife as a time for growth, not crisis

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Little, Brown Spark / Courtesy of MEA

Chip Conley is 63 and loving it. Aging. Seriously. And he wants you to love it too. Conley, an author and entrepreneur, details why in his new book, Learning to Love Midlife: 12 Reasons Why Life Gets Better With Age (Jan. 16). Though midlife is usually associated with the word “crisis,” he argues, it has the potential to be an overwhelmingly positive, transformational stage; it should be “reframed as a chrysalis, where we shed our skin, spread our wings and pollinate our wisdom to the world,” he likes to say.  

Conley wasn’t always so poetically positive about his middle years. The founder of a boutique hotel company and former head of global hospitality and strategy at Airbnb, he faced loads of challenges in his 40s. Among them: nearly dying after he experienced an allergic reaction to antibiotics, becoming single after the end of a longtime relationship, and losing five friends to suicide.

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“I said, ‘I don’t want to do this anymore. I want to change my life,’ because everything was going wrong. And so I did,” he told us in a recent interview. The decision to focus his efforts on rebranding midlife came to him while he was writing his 2018 book Wisdom @ Work: The Making of a Modern Elder. “One day I went for a run on the beach and I had an epiphany,” he explains. “The epiphany was: Why don’t we help people in midlife understand how to reimagine and repurpose themselves — to cultivate their wisdom of life experience in a way that serves them and the world.”

Now he’s an enthusiastic brand ambassador for positive aging, catering to middle-aged seekers of happiness and purpose at the Modern Elder Academy (MEA), a learning institute he cofounded in 2018. It holds workshops at two retreat centers, one based in Baja California, Mexico, and the other in Santa Fe, New Mexico (he divides his time between the two), because “who teaches you about midlife?” Conley asks. “No one.” Prices start at $420 a night.

MEA includes “the world’s first online wisdom school,” with courses such as “Reframing Retirement” and “Cultivating Purpose.” A third campus is set to open in March, MEA’s second location in Santa Fe, with a slate of planned speakers that includes poet and spiritual leader Mark Nepo and British writer Pico Iyer.   

This week, MEA announced a partnership with Blue Zones, a longevity research organization based on the work of Dan Buettner, author of the 2008 mega-bestseller The Blue Zones, among other books on how to live longer and better. In 2024, MEA will offer two Blue Zones-themed retreats.  

We asked Conley, the impresario of this expanding midlife happiness empire, to offer six of his favorite reasons we should all love being middle-aged.

1. You care less about what others think.

In the book, that chapter’s called “I have no more f---s left to give.” When we’re younger, we seem to care about everything, especially what people think of us. In midlife, there’s this sense of relief that we’re not trying to show off to the world. We get a little clearer on who we are and start focusing on what really matters. Not just what matters, but who matters.

2. You have space in your life to really invest in social relationships.

The number one variable for happiness and health for people in their 80s and 90s is how invested they were in their social relationships in midlife. That comes from Blue Zones research and the Harvard Study of Adult Development, an 85-year longitudinal study. For many people in their younger years, life was full of spinning plates because of their career or their family or they were taking care of older parents and younger children. Midlife is a time to make a conscious decision, to say, “I’m going to be investing in my friendships and not just my old friendships but making new ones.” Our social wellness, how we are connected to other people, is crucial for wellness.  

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3. You have accumulated wisdom to share.

Wisdom is not always correlated with age, but if you take the time to understand what you’ve learned along the way, from your challenging life experiences, it means that you’re able to build, cultivate and harvest your wisdom. And as you’re able to harvest your wisdom, you can start doing something that psychoanalyst Erik Erikson called generativity. Generativity is when you’re giving back — you’re taking your wisdom and sharing it with others in a way that’s valuable to them. And that’s a beautiful part of midlife, when you start to feel like, wow, I have something to offer.   

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4. You have time to learn new things.

You start to say, “I don’t need to do that anymore. I can edit my life. And I don’t have to be on the treadmill of success.” Because of that, it gives you time to become a beginner again. One of the nice things about midlife, if you’re doing it the right way, is you have some time back in your life. So the question people at midlife should be asking is, “How am I becoming a beginner again, in some part of my life?” Curiosity and an openness to new experiences is positively correlated with living a longer life.

5. Your body no longer defines you.

It’s like we’re issued this rental vehicle at birth that’s our body. Once a car has been out there on the road for 30, 40 years, you still need to maintain it, but what matters more than what it looks like on the outside is how it feels on the inside. I think people do well to start thinking, My body and my looks are not the only playing field that I have to play on. There are my social relationships and my intellectual and cultural curiosities. There’s my spiritual life. There are all kinds of playing fields upon which you actually get better with age.  

6. Your spiritual side awakens.

We start to feel a deep sense that we are part of something bigger than ourselves, and we’re able to see nature and our grandchild or a child in a new way, because we feel the awe of it all. One of the things that I’ve heard a lot from people is that they feel like, “There’s something inside me that is sort of stirring, and I don’t have words for it, but it’s sort of like a search for meaning. A search for purpose or a desire to feel part of something bigger than me.” It can happen at any time in your life, but I think it’s really happening later in life, partly because of this sense that we are shifting our primary operating system from the ego to the soul. And in so doing, we have a spiritual curiosity about life and how everything fits together.

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