Maureen Gaffney: ‘In middle age, you’re in your prime’

The psychologist’s new book is a love letter to humanity in all its stages

Maureen Gaffney: Her new  book’s message is that we are moving forward and developing as people right throughout our lives. Photograph: Tom Honan

Maureen Gaffney: Her new book’s message is that we are moving forward and developing as people right throughout our lives. Photograph: Tom Honan

 

One of the hazards of interviewing Dr Maureen Gaffney is that afterwards you risk becoming a bit of a Dr Maureen Gaffney nerd. For several days afterwards, I went around sharing nuggets of her insights about growing older, relationships, family life, finding purpose and being a parent.

Everyone I met in their 40s got treated to the excellent news that they were technically still a young adult since middle age doesn’t now start until 50 and lasts until nearly 70; and that they won’t need to worry about being old until well past 80, that in fact they shouldn’t worry about it at all because that’s when they will be happiest.

My family WhatsApp group was deluged with screenshots of quotes from her new book, Your One Wild and Precious Life (the title is taken from a gorgeous Mary Oliver poem) about the benefits of feeling younger than your chronological age.

The other chief hazard of interviewing the psychologist, bestselling author, consultant and long-time radio contributor is that – as you’ll know if you’ve ever heard her on radio – she talks a lot, and fast. She is a fascinating and lively conversationalist, the ideas, insights and nuggets of research emerging so rapidly they sometimes seem to trip over each other on the way out.

“I’m an interviewer’s nightmare,” she laughs and I deny it, but afterwards I realise that I have asked virtually none of the questions I’d planned. Still, with a subject like Gaffney, you really just need to turn up and press record.

Your One Wild and Precious Life: An Inspiring Guide to Becoming Your Best Self At Any Age, to give it its full title, is a deeply fascinating field guide to the key stages of life and the 10 developmental tasks that we meet and – hopefully – conquer during each one. It’s not the self-help book or positive psychology manual that the sub-head implies, though she is a psychologist and its message is overwhelmingly positive. “If there’s one word I hate in life, it’s tips. Although obviously you want to be helpful to people,” she says.

Her idea of a nightmare is being asked to describe it in an elevator pitch. “You’d probably be up and down several storeys with me if I was to give you an elevator pitch.”

What she hopes this book does rather than offer rules to live by “is hand it back [to the reader] and say, you know more about yourself and your life and all that went before than anyone does, and somewhere in all that knowledge, you know the best solution” to whatever you’re facing.

I recognised entire sections that seemed to have been written just for me

It is a profound, important work; simultaneously wise, instructive and a love letter to humanity in all its stages. In its nearly 400 pages, I recognised entire sections that seemed to have been written just for me, and I recognised parts of my own story, my husband’s, and those of each of my three children. I don’t think I’ve ever taken so many notes when reading a book.

The starting point for it is explored in the first 100 pages. It’s “that old question. How does your past shape you? How do you escape it? And how do you make a life for yourself?” That led her to think about the interplay between the attachments we form in infancy, what she describes in the book as our three core psychological drives for closeness, competence and autonomy, and how they shape our lives.

We meet over Zoom in the last days of August. She is in Connemara on a holiday with her extended family, including five grandchildren under eight, one of whom is a little boy just a few weeks old. She’s been swimming in the sea – the “coldest, cleanest sea in Ireland” – every day. Some evidence of the detritus of family life is scattered on a large dining table behind her, the trees just visible through a pair of tall sash windows behind are moving in the breeze, and she radiates happiness.

The book’s message is that we are moving forward and developing as people right throughout our lives. In it, she writes, “you are the author of that story… you can also reset your story, and direct your development on to a new course. You begin to see that your life, like every life, is not linear. Instead, it is characterised by advances and setbacks, lapses and gains, and that they are all part of the developmental process that made, and is still making, you the person that you are.”

For all of us, “the essence of wellbeing is the sense that your life is moving forward, even if it’s rickety, even if it’s not exactly what you thought, but you’re still moving forward. To not feel that, to feel that you’re stuck is really, really painful.”

If this sounds a bit like the kind of feelgood aphorisms you might find in a self-help book, the difference is that it is grounded firmly in science. The book has been a long time in the making, coming over a decade after her bestselling Flourishing, which sold 70,000 copies and still sells today. “It was cooking in my mind for a long time. There was so much research to get through.”

You’re ageing and developing from the moment you’re born until the moment you die

As the papers and books piled up on her bedside table and she became so deeply immersed in research that at one point, she worried that she might end up doing “10 separate books. It looked like I might actually do it inadvertently. My husband would occasionally say to me, ‘well, how are you getting on?’ And I’d say, I’m still doing adolescence. And he’d be like, ‘Are you ever going to be finished’? It was like War and Peace.”

As a scholarship student at the University of Chicago in the 1970s, Gaffney’s thesis supervisor was Bernice Neugarten, who had developed the idea of a “social clock” – the notion that society sets rules about when it’s “appropriate” to get a job, get married, have a baby or retire. There, Gaffney was introduced to another idea that is at the core of the book – the idea that from babyhood through to extreme old age, we are all still a work in progress. “You’re ageing and developing from the moment you’re born until the moment you die.”

And there are quite a few more stages in between than you might expect. Since we’re living longer and spending more years in every stage of life, that social clock has been reset. Now, in your 20s, you’re an “emerging adult” and the emergence of that new stage has put an upward pressure on all the others. The amount of time we have to live has doubled, so we spend a full third of our adulthood in the period that follows – young adulthood or what Gaffney calls “the rush hour of life”.

Middle age starts at 50, and since old age doesn’t really start until 80, or whenever prolonged ill health takes hold, Gaffney has come up with a new bridging stage which she calls “late adulthood”.

I think young people actually have had a fairly shit time really

“Before, when you left school, you were expected to pretty much then enter adulthood and by gorra, at 21, you saw yourself as an adult and you were treated like an adult. But that changed because young adults were staying dependent much longer. I think there was that sense that life had got much more complex, and that it was taking longer to prepare for life. The overwhelming majority don’t feel like an adult until they’re mid to late-20s and there’s a heroic few that go on until they’re about 30,” she says.

Young adulthood is not the energetic, optimistic and mostly carefree time it once was. “Up until really the recession, every generation was doing better than their parents’ generation. The recession put paid to that. Suddenly, an awful lot of younger people now are facing the prospect they won’t be able to buy a house like their parents did; they won’t have pensions like their parents have. I think young people actually have had a fairly shit time really. As one woman said to me, ‘I’m not getting these years back’.”

Young adulthood is also less fun than it used to be. Parenting – which “has become a verb, a performance, subject to bewildering fads and fashions”, she notes – is more complex “and it goes on for a lot longer than you thought it would”. We put far more demands on our romantic partners to be everything to us – best friend, soulmate, sexual partner, co-parent. “You expect more from your personal relationships,” she writes. “More intimacy, more equality, more support to keep growing and developing.” As a result, we’re harder to satisfy.

Perhaps predictably then, life’s real low point comes not, as everything from Hallmark birthday cards to Hollywood might suggest, in middle age but at peak rush hour. Around the world, it’s remarkably consistent: our low point comes at the age of 48 on average (slightly younger in very prosperous countries). This is what Gaffney calls “the Big Dip”, when wellbeing and happiness plummet and you’re left with “a general sense of stress and strain, more worries, a loss of confidence… more problems sleeping, maybe a spike in depression”.

You stumble on the secret of happiness – that life is precious and sweet and that every moment counts

Happiness levels start rising again steadily from 50 and in middle age, you’re “in your prime, you’re on top of your game, you have so much experience under your belt and at the same time, you’re young, you’re vigorous, and you’re over the heavy duty years of child rearing. If you’re single, you’ve all your friends back. I think that’s a terrific time in your life,” she says now.

You start looking at the time you have left instead of the time you have spent. “It’s like you’re on top of the hill, and you can see the end of the road. It’s a long, long, long ways away, but you can see it now. And that for most people means [thinking], I am going to make the very most of that time.”

By the time “you can most easily imagine the end of your life, you are happier than the middle-aged or even the young”. Instead of despair, knowing that you are close to the end of your life triggers a realisation. “You stumble on the secret of happiness – that life is precious and sweet and that every moment counts.”

She makes the case that “how old you feel is not a trivial thing”. Feeling older than your peers has significantly negative implications on your health, while the reverse is also true. “I couldn’t tell you how happy I was when I read all that research,” she laughs.

“I just underlined all these paragraphs with highlighter pens, furiously marking everything.”

I tell her about the barrage of inspiring quotes to the family WhatsApp. “You see!” she exclaims. “It’s such a releasing idea. Age is an empty variable. Outside of childhood and extreme old age, age predicts practically nothing about you. But how you old you feel does.”

And yet, she says, ageism in society goes almost completely unchallenged. “We haven’t yet found satisfactory solutions to racism and sexism and all the rest of it, but ageism is completely ignored. Even the most liberal, well-educated, well-intentioned people are unintentionally ageist. You’re written off at a certain stage, particularly women. And the awful thing is that it has an effect.”

All a kid needs is one adult who’s irrationally crazy about them

Despite all the challenges we face – navigating these new life stages, the pandemic, the pressure we put on ourselves to be all things to all people – she is “hugely optimistic” about the future for younger generations. She points to the generation that grew up after the American Great Depression. “They grew up to be the most extraordinary generation of Americans. I think once the fundamentals are right, once kids leave their family feeling that someone has their back, that will see you through.” She quotes another psychologist, Russian-American Urie Bronfenbrenner. “All a kid needs is one adult who’s irrationally crazy about them.”

Born in Midleton in 1947, Gaffney certainly had that. She was the first person in her family to go to university, as well as the first girl from her school. She arrived on campus at University College Cork with a plan to study English literature, but in the queue for registration, she met a girl who was going to study psychology and decided she’d give it a try. “It was one of the best decisions I ever made.”

In 1974, she won a scholarship to the University of Chicago, where she did a master’s degree in social science, focused on mothers and daughters, and was first introduced to the more dynamic view of ageing. She later studied at the University of California Berkeley under psychologist Mary Main. Main is known for her research on attachment theory, work that had a profound impact on the young Gaffney. “I’ve always been fascinated by that intergenerational thing.” Having a secure attachment in childhood with a caregiver is a springboard for the rest of your life, but “attachment isn’t destiny”, she says. The key thing, she says, is to “have insight” into what made you, “being able to remember your own pain, that’s actually what distinguishes those who repeat and those who don’t.”

I’ve created great occasions in my life

She has come to the conclusion that “the core of wisdom” is “being able to stand back and see things from a much wider perspective. And to see that no matter what, your experiences, even if they were painful, are all part of a story that started long before you; long before your parents even. These things that happen to people, the way they flow into your bloodstream almost, and are passed on from generation to generation. All that matters is that you make things a bit better.”

Now 74, like other people in the “late adulthood” stage of life, she has been taking stock and thinking about her own legacy. For most people, this might not be a “big project”, but something “small and private and lasting”. When she was writing the book it occurred to her that in her case, it’s not her bestselling books, her newspaper columns or radio contributions, or even her important work on the Law Reform Commission or her 20 years as a clinical psychologist with the Eastern Health Board, but something much more intimate. “I’ve created great occasions in my life. I love having people over for dinner and there’s nothing I love more than a summer evening and the odd experience when you can do it in the garden. We’ve a lovely garden and I love cooking.”

Those are the moments that make up the fabric of her life and her legacy, “that time in the evening when everyone is mellow and they’re sipping wine, and the light is fading a bit and you feel you could talk until 2am or 3am in the morning, and you often do. These are the occasions that linger in your mind.”

Your One Wild and Precious Life: How to be Happy, Fulfilled and Successful at Every Age by Maureen Gaffney (Penguin), €18, is published on September 16th

Maureen Gaffney: How to get the most out of life. A new series starts on Monday, September 13th on irishtimes.com

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