Everyone knows that sensible people invest in a pension, but a new bestseller argues that what we really need from our 50s onwards is an emotional investment plan. Although its author, Arthur C Brooks, is an economist at Harvard, his book Strength to Strength: Finding Success, Happiness, and Deep Purpose in the Second Half of Life, ignores the usual monetary tips about putting aside 12.5 per cent of your monthly salary in favour of auditing the soul. He’s not The Atlantic magazine’s chief happiness correspondent for nothing. Brooks divides the post-midlife decades into four areas called the four Fs. No, not the usual horsemen of old-age apocalypse – frumpiness, fragility, fussiness and foul temper – but faith, family, friendship and function. In an online video, he tells us, “The sooner you start investing in your happiness, the better off you will be. You can change the odds of being happier at 75 than you were at 25, but you have to make the investments.”

If our adult lives are from 20 to an optimistic 90, 55 is the midpoint whereby we need to be putting the work in to ensure that we don’t end up sulking in the garden dreaming of our glory days as a CEO. His advice veers from the prosaic (don’t smoke, don’t drink too much, go on a daily walk) to the most important of all, cultivating stable long-term relationships.

His advice should find many followers what with happiness levels dipping across the globe because of the pandemic among other global concerns.

Paul Dolan, professor of behavioural science at the LSE and author of Happiness by Design and Happy Ever After, says: “The only robust finding we’ve got from our happiness data is that when you hit middle age, it increases. When you’re 50 and you look at someone who’s 30, chances are that they’re going to spend the next 20 years getting less happy and you’re going to spend them getting happier. That said, there are small things that ‘if we did more of every day I’m pretty confident we’d be happier’. These include listening to music, getting outdoors, helping others, spending time with people you like and laughing. If you did 15 minutes more of any or one of those things every day, you’d be happier.”

One of the reasons we’re happier as we get older is that we start to do these things naturally – eschewing the pursuit of success and money in favour of those life-enhancing cliches of lockdown, like listening to birdsong and baking bread.

But we shouldn’t rely on a natural segue into contentment, he says, but still need to “make happiness a habit by building in these activities day to day.” Dolan, 53, has been weight training five times a week for more than 20 years and it is central to both his identity and well-being, yet he recognises that even healthy, happy habits like this are weak enough to be broken by a holiday or illness. “I put weight training in my diary,” he says, “in the same way as a Zoom call.”

This planning, he says, sounds effortful but it actually makes it effortless to achieve your goals. “My mind is packed and ready to go to the gym.” Dr Tom Cotton, a psychotherapist and founder of development consultancy Mind Environment, can’t bear the way that the word ‘crisis’ comes after ‘midlife’. “I prefer to think of it as a midlife opportunity,” he says.

In the area of life which Brooks calls work – in other words your function – Cotton says it is vital to celebrate all that you’ve gained in favour of mourning what you’ve lost. “Experience, life wisdom, broad context thinking... you’ve seen a lot and it’s new fuel to power the next bit of the journey.”

What we need to avoid is competing with either younger people or our past selves. “Acknowledge that physically you’re no longer at the height of your powers,” he says. Don’t ignore or mourn this physical loss and whatever you do, he says, “Don’t go out and buy a Ferrari” or whatever helps foster the delusion that you’re still young.

This hard-earned experience and wisdom can be used to help others, one of the best ways of finding happiness as we get older.

Volunteering or mentoring benefits those in need, but also helps us in realising just how much knowledge we’ve collected. Friends of mine who have advised pupils from deprived schools on how to interview well for Cambridge have arguably got more out of it than their mentees.

As well as eschewing the sports car, all the experts advise avoiding the other midlife cliche of dumping your spouse in favour of a younger model. My husband is a family lawyer and says that only rarely do his clients seem to be happier after the divorce. “Once they’ve had the relief of taking action,” he says, “their levels of contentment just fall back to their natural state. Or worse, they’re poorer both financially and emotionally.”

Of all the work that Brooks advises in his book, the area where most efforts should be directed is in cultivating these long-term relationships, not only your marriage or relationship, but family and friends too. “The point is to find people with whom you can grow, whom you can count on, no matter what comes your way.”

Sometimes the hardest part of happiness is identifying what it is that will help us reach old-age nirvana. Dina Glouberman, author of the classic midlife resurrection guide The Joy of Burnout, advises that we project ourselves forward to a happy place in order to intuit what this consists of. “Imagine a future time,” says Glouberman, whose new book ImageWork, a guide to transformational change, “five years ahead, and imagine what is making you happy, and then let your future self give your present one some advice as to what it is that you want.”

Conversely, she advises imagining an unhappy future in order to find out what it is you need to avoid. She’s her own best advert for this method. At age 76, she used these methods to find out that she didn’t want more holidays or money, but wanted to feel creative. “And the next day I started on my book.”

Best of all, a happiness plan like this is a pension you can cash in and start enjoying as soon as you like – without penalties.

The Daily Telegraph

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