Sandi McCann of Boulder, Colorado, remembers a particularly vivid October morning four years ago, when she was hustling off to work. She was worrying about her college-aged daughter’s tuition money, which was evaporating in the falling stock market, and generally feeling burned out at work and in her personal life.
The 51-year-old McCann was good at her marketing job. She’d been doing it for nearly 30 years, and up until now, her six-figure income had provided adequate security for herself and the daughter she was raising on her own. Also, she was quick to admit, the adrenaline rush that came from working with high-profile clients was addictive. But the work was never inspiring, and now it was draining her energy and spirit.
It didn’t help that McCann was still reeling from her divorce. She’d left her husband more than a year earlier after discovering he had cheated on her and siphoned hundreds of thousands of dollars out of their joint account and into a secret money market. The divorce took months to finalize, and by 2008 she was still dealing with the legal aftermath.
But McCann gritted her teeth and soldiered on. She was doing what she felt she had to do and never stopped long enough to consider whether she was living a life she desired.
Until that October day in 2008. Late for work, she rushed out of the house, and the spring-loaded backdoor slammed, trapping her index finger and stopping her in her tracks.
“I just stood there and wailed,” she remembers. “I cried because of the pain but also because it was a metaphor for my life."
That feeling of being trapped in an unfulfilling routine is common among people in their late 40s and 50s. When faced with an empty nest, a changing body and, often, a desire to jump off the career fast track, they tend to question whether they are happy or feel satisfied, says John Seeley, a personal growth coach in Newport Beach, Calif., and the author of Get Unstuck: The Simple Guide to Restart Your Life.
Discovering that the answer is “No!” can be a jolting realization. But there’s an upside to this kind of reality check: It can launch you toward a life of greater accomplishment and contribution.
(MORE: Why Women at Midlife Must Rewrite Their Life Assumptions)
The Power of Having a Life Purpose
People become energized when they have a meaningful goal to pursue, says Patricia Boyle, a neuropsychologist at the Rush Alzheimer's Disease Center in Chicago. When we are driven to do something that we feel makes a difference in the world, we are infused with positive emotion, energy and vitality, and our risk of cognitive decline also drops.
“Participating in activities that bring fulfillment, that connect you to what’s important to you, will help you function better and even flourish,” Boyle says.
The Japanese call this state ikigai, or having a reason to get up in the morning or the belief that life is worth living.
This isn’t to say that you’ll be totally blissed out and giddy once you hit upon a goal that fires you up. Often the things people are driven to do are loaded with challenge and adversity — like helping underprivileged kids or quitting a high-paying career to write a book — but you’ll also experience a sense of accomplishment simply by pursuing those things that feel significant.
Discovering Whether You’re Stuck
At first, though, most of us don’t even notice when we’ve gotten ourselves in a rut. We’re so busy keeping up with our work obligations, managing the household and paying the bills that we have little time or energy left to explore our own interests — or evaluate whether what we’re doing is on track with our desires, Seeley says.
People can carry on like that for years or even decades until they, like McCann, get a wake-up call.
6 Warning Signs That You May Be Stuck
According to Seeley and Boyle, these are indicators that you could be in a rut:
- You feel as though something is missing.
- You feel uncomfortable even with the familiar.
- You no longer know what you like to do.
- You feel rundown and may come down with repeated colds or contract an illness.
- You begin showing up late for work or you have a hard time getting out of bed in the morning.
- Your spouse complains that you’re acting withdrawn or unmotivated.
Reconnect to Your Passion
The good news is, once you recognize that you’re in a funk, there are plenty of things you can do to get out of it. Unlike depression, Seeley says, stuckness doesn’t dull your desire to learn or have unique experiences. You don’t lose your sense of curiosity or interest — they’ve just been simmering on the back burner too long. The way out of this stalled state is to find out what’s really cooking by turning up the heat.
Boyle and Seeley suggest four good strategies:
- Flashback to move forward. What did you once enjoy as a child or young adult? Give it a try now. If you liked to dance, get your groove on again. Was cooking your thing? Take a culinary class. Just thinking about the fun you had in your younger days will help you plug into your innate creativity and get you thinking about what might excite you now.
- Check out different activities. Novelty is the antidote to stagnation. The way to create some movement in your life is to try something new and experiment a bit. Sure, you’ll find plenty that you don’t like, but you’ll also uncover a few pleasant surprises.
- Consider your legacy. By midlife, we have a bit of perspective and a sense of our values and priorities. Think about what they are for you then ask: Do I spend some time each day in support of these qualities? If you don’t, rearrange your schedule and pay daily attention to the principles you care about most and the things you want to be known for.
- Give back. Mow your neighbor’s lawn, deliver meals to the homebound, help out at a school. You’ll experience the good feelings of a helper’s high and may even discover your ikigai.
McCann began trying several news things, while still in her corporate job, to find a way out of her stuckness. In her off time, she intensified her yoga practice and trained to become an instructor. She altered her diet and replaced processed and packaged items with healthier whole foods, and she began meditating.
Slowly, she realized that the more she pursued new avenues, the less satisfying her old path was — and the less willing she was to continue down it. In 2011, she quit her marketing job, and for months lived off a small severance package and savings. She vacillated between exhilaration from her newfound freedom and utter panic about what she would do next. But the strong conviction that she was doing the right thing kept her going.
McCann realized that she’d felt the deepest sense of joy and purpose when she'd helped to care for her dad's terminally ill wife, while she was still working. Now, with different possibilities before her, she was moved to do more of that work. In January 2012 she started a new career providing care and assistance to people who needed help aging in place.
The Courage to Fly
It takes guts to ditch what you’ve been doing to survive and to go looking for something that will allow you to thrive. But whether you're working full-time or have the financial flexibility to jump ship and immerse yourself in something new, the search can begin now. And when you find your own ikigai, you’ll shift from a life spent idling in neutral to one that revs you up and drives you into the day.
“You’ve got to let go of the trapeze bar and be OK suspended in midair for a while,” McCann says. “Yeah, you're probably going to fall a few times. But you’ve got to be willing to let go if you’re ever going to fly.”
Polly Campbell writes and speaks on personal development and spirituality topics. She is the author of Imperfect Spirituality: Extraordinary Enlightenment for Ordinary People.