“Life begins at forty” is a well-known expression often said as an encouragement to people who hit the age of forty. Studies show that this period is the best part of life while some research reveals that other age groups live better.
What is the truth behind this popular adage? How do the science of psychology, cultural practices, social engagement, and spirituality affect our perspective on the quality of life? Awareness on such grounds gives us a realistic idea and mindfulness to avoid pitfalls, false starts, and regrets later in life.
The Story of “Life Begins At 40”.
The phrase is often credited to the American philosopher, Walter Pitkin, in his popular and influential self-help book, “Life Begins at Forty” which was published in 1932 and written during a time of rapid increase in life expectancy. It was reported by the Publishers Weekly to be the number one best-selling non-fiction book in the United States in 1933. It was also used as a movie title in 1935 starred by actor-humorist Will Rogers and appeared many times in printed articles, newspapers, and in songs by Sophie Tucker and John Lennon.
However, according to an article by Gary Martin, it was Mrs. Theodore Parsons who was the first one to express the phrase “life begins at forty” when she wrote “Brain Culture Through Scientific Body Building” in 1912, referring specifically to women stating, “The average woman does not know how to breathe, sit, stand or walk. Now I want women to train for the special duties which may devolve upon them in war time. Death begins at thirty, that is, deterioration of the muscle cells sets in. Attention to diet and exercise would enable men and women to live a great deal longer than they do today. The best part of a woman’s life begins at forty.”
As stated, “Life begins at forty” was originally intended for women in the 20th century. Since then, generations have adopted this phrase to elate the forties. As times are changing and the life expectancy nowadays is higher compared to the last decades, does the phrase apply in the new times? Is it still relevant? Or is it a myth?
Study Shows that Forty is the Best Part of Life.
The 20th-century adage, “life begins at forty” is not a myth, according to The Economic Times after a research study was done in Britain wherein over 1,000 adults revealed accumulation of the most belongings they would not want to lose, citing that “it is the time when most people usually achieve what they want”.
Aside from life achievements in terms of career, knowledge, or wealth, adults are also stated to be efficient in terms of cognitive development in everyday emotion and problem-solving. A 2007 study on interpersonal problem solving by Fredda Blanchard-Fields reveals that older adults are more effective in navigating social and emotional problems than the younger age group.
Psychologically, ages 40s to 60s enter into the seventh stage of life, which Erik Erikson described as Generativity vs. Stagnation. Generativity refers to “making your mark on the world through creating or nurturing things that will outlast an individual and benefit other people.” Developing this sense of generativity in adults indicates better health, more positive relationships, greater productivity, greater fulfillment, and increased community involvement.
Another research focusing on women aged forty were reported to have a change of personality with increased confidence, decisiveness, comfort, and stability compared with younger women. Moreover, Huffpost described this age group as someone who is “less insecure than her younger counterpart, has grown to appreciate what she has, enjoys and cherishes the little things, accepts that nothing in life is permanent, change is inevitable, and passionately pursues the best of life.”
While younger women are still in the process of identity exploration, growing, learning, saving up, and establishing personal and economic independence, a woman in her forties is a time wherein career satisfaction is reached, life’s priorities are reassessed, and she can live a life with stability, clarity, and focus.
One question that needs to be asked, however, is the definition and management of life. Does this mean we have to wait for the age of forty to experience a better life? Does age determine the quality of life?
Studies Show that Other Age Groups Live Better than Forty.
A Netflix reality show, “100 Humans: Life’s Questions Answered”, reveals some interesting discoveries about human behaviors through different social experiments. In its 2nd episode, entitled “The Best Age to Be Alive”, different age groups were given tasks to test their stamina, communication in terms of working well with others, good memory, technological dexterity, creative thinking, and problem-solving.
Interestingly, the twenties and sixties did best overall. They were described as the two smartest cohorts in terms of Fluid Intelligence and Crystallized Intelligence. According to research, the 20s are the smartest when it comes to speed, quick reasoning, and solving novel problems, while middle adulthood (40s to 60s) mostly excels on matters of practicality, applying knowledge and wisdom gained through life experience.
Dan Pink, a best-selling author and motivational expert was invited to the show to explain the behavior of twenties and sixties, “If you look at how happy people are in their lives, how satisfied people are over the course of their lives, here’s what it looks like: it’s a U-shaped curve. People are happier in their 20s. It begins to decline in their 30s, 40s, reaches the bottom, and then it begins to tick back up when people turn 60.”
The show further stated that the sixties are living the dream and that they perform better in life because they are getting the most sleep, which is shown to be one of the most influential factors for good thinking and healthy living. Moreover, according to the findings of a study conducted by Dr. John Garry, it is emphasized that the older age groups are happier and more fulfilled despite the scientific reports that there is a significant decline in cognitive that occurs with aging.
Ironically, the 40s team came in last in most of the tests. One of the show hosts commented, “All my friends in their forties, they live a pretty busy life. It’s a lot of stress. They have kids. They gotta pay the bills.” Stress, which is reported to harm physical and mental health, is increasing worldwide with a greater percentage among female adults.
One research concludes that the quality of life in the general population is more associated with the accumulation of belongings or wealth and social connection than with health matters. This indicates that human beings tend to acquire tangible materials and manage life at the cost of physical or mental health.
The Age of False Starts and Regrets.
Going back to Erik Erikson’s Generativity vs. Stagnation, if the sense of generativity is not achieved at this stage, the adult develops a sense of stagnation or despair over life regrets. Some of the potential outcomes mentioned include worse health, lower quality relationships, and decreased life satisfaction.
A 2017 survey was done to a thousand women aged forty in the United Kingdom, according to Huffpost. The result revealed that 32% of the respondents feel anxious generally about life, 35% lack self-confidence, 20% have career dissatisfaction, 18% expressed dread about work, and 26% expressed life regrets.
Furthermore, a study of nine papers between 1989 – 2003 containing tabulations of life regrets revealed that education (e.g., “If only I had studied harder”) ranked number one, accounting for 38% in all ages in 1989, 30% in 2003, and 37% among adult women in 1995. It was followed by regrets on a career and romance. The findings also show that these regrets reflect missed and denied opportunities.
As times are changing, it is interesting to note that recent research in 2017 reported that 90% of respondents say that they have a major regret and the biggest regret tend to revolve around romance (18.1%), followed by family (15.9%), education (13.1%), career (12.2%), and finance (9.9%). It was also discovered that regret is the second most frequently mentioned emotion after love and that 44% of women expressed romantic regrets in life.
As has been shown, it is not essentially the age of forty that determines the best part of life but wise management in each phase and aspect of life. The twenties may be advanced in terms of intellect, but behind emotionally, in which they are prone to make unwise decisions and false starts. The adults may have achieved what they wanted, but neglect the essentials of a healthy lifestyle that lead them to a lot of mental stress and physical ailments. Regardless of age, people either obtain success or despair due to wise or unwise decisions in life.
Walter Pitkin (1933), in his book, argues that people “can get much more out of their fourth, fifth, and sixth decades of life than out of any of the first, simply by learning how to live and how to make the most of opportunities within reach.”
“The only thing people regret is that they did not live boldly enough, that they did not invest enough heart and did not love enough. Nothing else really counts at all.”– Ted Hughes, British Poet Laureate
Attention to Quality And Mindful Living.
World Health Organization (WHO) defines the Quality of Life as, “An individual’s perception of their position in life in the context of the culture and value systems in which they live and in relation to their goals, expectations, standards, and concerns.”
It is inherently ambiguous, according to Britannica, as it can be subjective in terms of wealth and capabilities or culturally-based according to beliefs and practices. However, health care defines it according to all dimensions of life encompassing physical, emotional, and social well-being.
Another angle on this debate is the relationship between spirituality and the quality of life. Science says that religion or faith in a higher power is good for overall health, according to Forbes, claiming that “it is commonly accepted around the world that religion and spirituality are among the most important of cultural factors – giving structure and meaning to behaviors, value systems, and experiences.”
Surprisingly, some scientific studies also confirmed that faith helps to improve and maintain the quality of life. For example, Mayo Clinic research made a remark that spiritual connection is associated with the quality of life in terms of health including greater longevity, coping skills, less anxiety, and recovery from illness.
Building on this idea, it is interesting to note that regardless of culture, age, and beliefs, Paul the Apostle wrote a timeless reminder in Ephesians 5:15 (NIV) saying,
“Be very careful, then, how you live—not as unwise but as wise.”
For this reason, a fulfilling, confident, worry-less life at forty is a process of persistent learning, sound decision-making, wise choices, a healthy lifestyle, and accountability with life-giving relationships, including connection to a higher Source. How we live the other thirty-nine years of life is what makes forty fruitful, meaningful, and worthwhile. It is how we manage each stage in life and make the most of it. It is not how long we live but how deep we live this life.
The best part of life begins NOT at forty but every time we choose to live each passing day more fully and wisely.Tweet
Life begins the moment we choose simplicity in a world that is fast-paced and complicated. It begins the moment we choose productivity in a world full of negativity and uncertainty. It is the moment we set healthy boundaries in a world full of compromise. It is the moment we realize that there is a Higher Being and believe by faith in this divine relationship. It is the moment we step into the world with our God-given ability and skills that create lasting change and impact. It is the time we step out of our comfort zone to bless the community and empower people to live life with purpose.
“The measure of life, after all, is not its duration but its donation.”– Corrie Ten Boom
Furthermore, life begins the moment we realize that our time on earth is limited compared to eternity, enabling us to fully engage in life and live it to the fullest.
James 4:14 (NLT) exhorts us the reality of life, “How do you know what your life will be like tomorrow? Your life is like the morning fog—it’s here a little while, then it’s gone.”
The universal truth is that everyone dies but not everyone lives. Despite the personal crises and global challenges that we face now and then, life is still worth living, if only we exercise and implement the right coping tools in navigating the world. Hey, it starts within us.
May this reality enable us to choose to wake up to another day with a renewed passion, authentic purpose, reset priorities, a refreshing cup of coffee, a life-giving book, declaring, “It is time to live”.
So, no matter where we are in this journey, no matter what mess we have had in life, and no matter what wasted time we have made in the past, today is a good opportunity to start afresh.
Life is short. Life begins now.
Enhance your strengths. Work on your weaknesses. Forgive and embrace yourself. Learn a new skill. Reset your priorities. Invest in something that facilitates self-growth. Stretch those tight muscles. Eat healthily. Connect with life-giving friendships. Take time to listen to people’s pain. Bless people in need. Have faith in the One who can give us life everlasting. REPEAT. Life is worth living.