This month I am celebrating my 50th birthday, and, so far, I'm finding it to be a wonderful time of life. Below are 10 reasons I feel that way:
|On a trip to Maui, relaxing after finishing latest revisions
to The Conflagration.
When I was in my late 30s, I read a book, How We Choose to Be Happy, that compiles studies on happiness. I don't remember the details, but the gist of it was that the happiest people are those who figure out for themselves what brings them joy and follow their own paths rather than trying to conform to what other people believe they should do. The book made sense to me, but I confess I sometimes worried when family members and even friends warned me that I’d “be sorry later” for not making the same choices they had made or were making. (My mother, distressed about me living with a longtime boyfriend without being married, once said, “You're not happy, you just think you are.” Which could provide fodder for some interesting philosophical discussions, but that's a whole other post.) I've stopped worrying about being sorry later. Over fifty years, I’ve known enough people for enough time to see firsthand that those who are happiest are those who’ve been fortunate enough to spend much of their time doing what they enjoy, being with people they like and respect, and putting most of their effort toward goals they find meaningful, regardless of how well their lives match anyone else’s picture of what they “should” be doing.
For the first 15 years of my working life, I worked very hard and earned very little. For the next 15, I worked hard and earned enough to buy a home (and later buy and move to a different home), but I was at my office or traveling so much I often felt I was living in a hotel. It was nice, but impersonal. Over the last decade, though, I’ve managed to accumulate furniture and furnishings I love (the former from a mix of Pottery Barn, secondhand and antique stores, and family pieces, including my grandmother's Singer sewing machine) and paint colors and flooring that all actually fit together. I enjoy my surroundings at home more than I ever have. That’s especially important because I do most of my writing in my home office. So my kitchen is both my kitchen and my break room, and my living room is my living room and a second area for pacing and dictating chapters into my iPhone when I feel too cooped up in my home office.
Now that I'm near 50, fewer people ask intrusive questions about my personal life. Many women have told me that when they were pregnant, strangers would come up to them and touch their bellies and ask personal questions about how far along they were or if they were planning on natural childbirth, as if it is everyone's right to know about their reproductive choices. Likewise, as I wrote about in Goodbye Ovaries, throughout my 30s and early 40s, people took it upon themselves to ask why I hadn't had children yet and to rush to assure me that there was still time to have them, even when I said I didn't want or plan to have kids. My guess is that now people satisfy themselves by thinking, “Oh, how sad, she never had kids,” and refrain from saying anything for fear of making me feel worse. I don't feel sad at not having children, but if the idea that I might be causes others to keep their views on my choices to themselves, I’m all for it.
Privacy (Part Two):
On a similar note, people also are less likely to ask me if I am married, divorced, or single or if I ever married. I'm guessing it’s connected to the child issue above. As with having children, I haven't noticed that marriage in general makes people happier or unhappier, but based on the questions I used to get, most people either presume that married people are happier and so want to push everyone into it or feel they personally are unhappy with being married and don’t understand why those of us who are happy being single ought to be allowed to stay that way. For whatever reason, the past five years or so I've noticed a decrease in such questions. Which is good for my reputation for being a polite, nice person, as the next time someone asked me, “Why haven’t you gotten married yet?” I was considering responding, “I don’t know. Why haven’t you gotten divorced yet?”
The older I am, the more I realize how privileged and fortunate I am to have always had a home, enough food to eat, and people around me who care about me, as well as people who have helped me reach my goals. Each morning, I say out loud three things from the last twenty-four hours for which I’m grateful and say how specifically they have made my life better. And then I feel grateful that I can always think of three things.
I'm excited to be living at a time where technology has opened so many ways of connecting with people and conducting business. The two ways I make my living now, writing and law, changed dramatically in the past decade. As a solo lawyer, I can work with clients all over the world on the same basis as do lawyers in very large firms, as the technology to do so is inexpensive and easily accessible. As an author, I can run my own publishing business and sell my work directly to readers, without being limited by what large publishing houses believe will be popular. Also, through social media, I’ve found communities of writers, artists, and readers all over the world whom I never would have met a decade or two ago. I found the story editor for Book 3 in my Awakening series, The Conflagration, because I listened to him on Storywonk podcasts about Buffy, Pride & Prejudice, and writing. Through the editor, I also found two beta readers, one of whom lives in Australia. With a click of a button, I sent her the manuscript to read. Likewise, I can keep in touch with friends and family all over the world as inexpensively as I can with someone who lives next door.
No More Working “For the Experience”:
I no longer need to do work I dislike simply to get experience or build my resume. I've gained valuable skills and learned a great deal at every job I've held. Many had tasks I didn't enjoy or actively hated, and I persisted to build a reputation or gain skills or add to my resume. Those are all good reasons for doing work that you don't particularly like (earning money is a really good reason too), but it's wonderful to be at a stage of life where how much I enjoy doing something is as important, if not more important, when I'm deciding what work to do. Recently, to celebrate my 50th birthday, I spent a week in my favorite place, Maui (see photo). I've been there several times before. While I had just as good a time as always, and I knew I was returning to Chicago in winter time, for the first time at the end of the trip I felt ready to come home. That's because I really enjoy almost every aspect of my work life, so returning to work is a happy thought.
Doing What I Like To Do For The Experience:
On the flipside, everything I do now is for the experience, in a different sense of the word. I take a trip or read a non-fiction book or introduce myself to somebody new simply because I want to, regardless whether it fits neatly within whatever professional or personal goals I’m pursuing. I've written enough novels and seen enough litigation to conclusion that I know it's okay to take time to simply enjoy an activity for its own sake. How much fun is that?
I’m more aware of and comfortable with my strengths and weaknesses, and I've realized how to best use my strengths rather than trying to be everything to everyone. When I was a new lawyer, people outside of law often told me I was “too nice” to be a lawyer. I recognized that this had more to do with the television and movie depictions of lawyers being, at best, overly aggressive and, at worst, underhanded, nasty, and unethical, but it still worried me that I might not seem tough enough to be a real lawyer. Over the decades, happily, I’ve discovered that being civil and treating people respectfully is an advantage 99 times out of 100, and when I need to be more aggressive, I’ve learned how to do that effectively. But I don’t try to change who I am to fit other people’s ideas about what a hard-driving, pound-the-table attorney looks like. Similarly, I know my books aren’t for everyone. If I get a good or bad review that is detailed and specific enough to draw my attention, I look to see what other books that reviewer likes and doesn’t like. If someone loved Rosemary’s Baby and The Da Vinci Code, I’ll consider the comments, positive or negative, when writing my next book. On the other hand, if the reviewer prefers literary fiction with chapters of lyrical prose where nothing happens and no one speaks, I’m less inclined to take that reviewer’s view of plot and character development to heart.
I have friends and colleagues I've met during all different phases of my life so far. Some I met at my early jobs throughout and soon after college, others I met in school, others when I became a lawyer, others at writing conferences, and more through on line communities and other activities I've enjoyed over the years. Yes, I had friends and acquaintances in my 20s and 30s, but not nearly as many, and it was harder to keep in touch. Now I spend nearly all my time interacting with people I like, admire, and respect. I can't think of anything better to be able to say about life than that.
How do you feel about different milestones in life? And what do you think are the most important factors in how happy you are? Feel free to comment.