Why 40 is the new 20 when it comes to happiness

The inspiring story of how one woman learned that with age, comes true and meaningful beauty.
By Marci O'Connor
Smiling woman bundled up in the snowy forest Photo: Masterfile

At 25, I danced like everybody was watching. I felt my looks dictated my success with work, men, landlords and baristas. It was exhausting. It was also unnecessary, I just didn’t know it yet. Now at 41, I’ve abandoned that futile way of thinking in favour of a peaceful confidence I simply could not have imagined owning at 25.

I’m not alone. Best-selling author Cheryl Strayed, who spent a chunk of time in her 20s hiking solo through the Pacific Crest Trail, describes herself far happier and more confident at 44 than at 22.

“It isn’t that I no longer feel uncertain and insecure, but rather that I’ve become more comfortable with these feelings,” Strayed explains. “I can laugh at myself more readily. I can see what's my responsibility and what isn't about me in the slightest. When I have setbacks and disappointments, I bounce back more quickly because I've got perspective from having been forced to bounce back before.”

More than ever, women in their 40s are tapping into a well of mindfulness, strength and intrepid confidence that is far more developed than it was in their 20s. But for those still struggling with finding their footing in their 40s (and beyond), Marla Shapiro, a family doctor and the television host of Balance: Television for Living Well has a few suggestions.

1. Are there behavioural changes you can make? According to Shapiro, the first step in addressing negative associations with aging is to reflect on your attitudes and find ways to adopt sustainable behavioural changes.

“If you can look at where your negative beliefs are coming from, then you can challenge them. If you think aging is all about decline and you’re not willing to challenge that, it will become your reality,” she says.


2. Don't forget how far you've come This means looking at your achievements and accomplishments, and recognizing you have the  opportunity to live each day in a mindful state by making deliberate choices to help you accomplish your goals. Shapiro explains that you need to asses everything in your life you can control, such as your diet, physical activity, alcohol consumption, your leisure time and the amount of laughter in your life.

There are many things out of our control and a lot of them, “can leave you very angry, bitter and unhappy,” Shapiro says.

“I also think as we get older, we develop the tools, the confidence, the skill sets (and) experience to stop and say, ‘Wait a minute: I am entitled to live my life more actionable.’ When you live with mindfulness, you don’t have to live each day in a reactionary state.”

Shapiro encourages women to see mid-life as a wonderful and important time to reflect.

“At this age, it’s easy to get caught up in lifestyle aspirations about how to get it all done and doing it all. We neglect the relationships around us, including ones with our girlfriends, partners, families.”


3. Don't let your looks validate you If women in their 40s have grown more at ease and self-assured, they also recognize (finally!) that a woman’s value does not rest on her looks. Yet as we age, many women struggle to remember that. There's a perception that older women have less agency than their younger counterparts, just by virtue of their looks.

I no longer measure my worth by the depth of my laugh lines, but rather in my strength and competencies. At 41,  I'm aware of my failings and my achievements, and can look at both with a gentler eye. We all want to feel attractive but this feeling can come without vanity.

As Strayed explains, it’s less about being more attractive now than in our 20s, and more about simply caring less about it.

“I used to spend a lot more time fretting about my beauty,” she says. “I used to invest energy in being a woman who turned heads when she walked down the street...I still care about my looks, I want people to find me attractive, but I don't spend an awful lot of time or energy making sure that happens. I've let go of beauty as a primary source of power.

“I don't fault young women for struggling with that. Beauty is, after all, the one form of power young women are granted, so why wouldn't they bank on it? The fact that I no longer do has to do with my own personal growth, not with anything on the outside,” she explains.


4. Let go! As for me: I no longer believe the foam-to-espresso ratio the barista pours is based on my looks. Nor do I doubt the love of the man who married me at 25 and has me convinced he adores me more now than ever before. As for dancing? I've been happily embarrassing myself for years regardless of who's watching.


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