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A Philosopher's Advice for Managing Midlife

8 lessons from the author of 'Midlife: A Philosophical Guide'

By Kieran Setiya

(Excerpted from MIDLIFE: A Philosophical Guide by Kieran Setiya. Copyright © 2017 by Princeton University Press. Reprinted by permission.)

Middle Age
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Many of us are casualties of the midlife crisis, striving to achieve what seems worthwhile, succeeding well enough, yet at the same time restless and unfulfilled. How to manage middle age? Here are lessons I learned while researching and writing my book, Midlife: A Philosophical Guide:

1. Don’t be too self-involved. As philosophers from Bishop Butler to John Stuart Mill have argued, the obsessive pursuit of happiness interferes with its own achievement. “Those only are happy,” Mill wrote, “who have their minds fixed on some object other than their own happiness; on the happiness of others, on the improvement of mankind, even on some art or pursuit, followed not as a means, but as itself an ideal end.” In order to be happy, you have to care about things other than yourself.

2. There is more to life than doing what needs to be done. In philosophical terms, not all value is “ameliorative,” solving problems or answering needs we would be better off without. You have to feed the kids, put out fires at work, keep your relationship alive. But that is not all there is.

Activities with “existential” value do not make things better than they might have been, but positively good: they explain why life is worth living at all. These activities range from the trivial to the profound, from hobbies to vocations in art or science. You need to find room for them in your life.

3. Even when things go well, midlife is missing out. You recognize the lives you will never lead, the paths you will never walk. While the disappointment is real, imagine the alternative. To live without loss, one must be indifferent to almost everything good. Only a drastic impoverishment in the world or your response to it could save you from missing out — and no one should want that.

4. Don’t overestimate the value of having options. Options matter, but not enough to compensate for choices that are worse. Don’t imitate Dostoevsky’s Underground Man: “What has made them conceive that man must want a rationally advantageous choice? What man wants is simply independent choice, whatever that independence may cost and wherever it may lead. And choice, of course, the devil only knows what choice.”

5. Resist regret. There are reasons to accept the past, even when it is not what you hoped it would be. Where those you love would not exist except for past mistakes, you have reason to be glad that those mistakes were made. Think of the contingencies in the history of a child’s conception, some of them misfortunes at the time, redeemed in part by her existence.

As well as attachment to new life, there is attachment to the details of your own, the people, places, and things. Do not focus on the abstract possibility of doing better, but on the intricate fabric of your life, the particular ways in which it is good. It is this plenitude you should place against the grand cartoon of lives unlived.


6. Appreciate the past. It is at midlife that the prospect of mortality may hit home, as people you love are taken from you. You come face to face with finitude. If you only look forward, you see the future gradually disappear. Take time to look back, to dwell on good things in the past, no less real for being over, not yet to come.

As Victor Frankl wrote, when potentialities are expressed, “they are rendered realities at that very moment; they are saved and delivered into the past, wherein they are rescued and preserved from transitoriness. For, in the past, nothing is irretrievably lost but everything irrevocably stored.”

7. Put mortality in perspective. The desire not to die is understandable, but what would it mean to live forever? To want the benefits of immortality is to want what lies beyond the human condition; it is akin to wishing for a superpower. Wanting to be immortal is like wanting the ability to fly: a talent it makes sense to envy, but whose absence it is irrational to mourn.

8. Value the process. When you invest your energy in projects, you invest in activities that aim at their own completion. With projects, satisfaction is always in the future or the past. To engage with them successfully is to complete them, and so to expel them from your life. Hence the feeling of emptiness and repetition, even when things go well.

Not everything we do is like this. Some activities do not aim at terminal states; they cannot be completed. Think of listening to music, spending time with family or friends, working for its own sake, not in order to get things done. Unlike projects, “atelic” activities — ones that do not aim at terminal states — are not exhausted by engagement. They are a source of satisfaction that is not deferred to the future or archived in the past but realized here and now. The answer to the tyranny of projects is to invest more fully in the process, and so to fill the void in the pursuit of goals.

Kieran Setiya, author of 'Midlife: A Philosophical Guide,' is a professor of philosophy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Read More
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