Maureen Gaffney: Middle age has more in store for you than you think

You are still optimistic, but it’s tempered by realism about what’s possible

Middle age – your 50s to late-60s – brings a new sense of confidence and a broader sense of wellbeing. Your life is more settled, and you feel a new stability. The combination of being settled and experienced is regarded as one of the best bits of being middle-aged. Over 70 per cent of you feel that this stage of your life is exciting, enjoyable, a time when you have more personal freedom, when changes are still possible.

Over half of you believe this is the time in your life for focusing more on yourself and finding out who you really are. At a deeper level, there is generally a closer fit between the way you are and the way you would like to be. You are still optimistic, but it’s tempered by realism about what’s possible.

Yet, even if you find middle age pretty stressful, it’s a mixed state that could be described as “happily stressed”. Your capacity for emotional regulation improves markedly. You can manage your feelings, your moods and stress responses more effectively, and are not as easily thrown off your stride.

You have a better sense of what can and cannot be done in most situations and the really important things to focus on. You are more skilled at buffering yourself from troublesome people and needless annoyances.

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A newfound sense of confident power is one of the most marked psychological changes in women in middle age

While men and women both enjoy the benefits of being middle-aged, the emotional gains are particularly sharp if you are a woman. In middle age, women score higher than men on most measures of wellbeing. You feel that you are making big strides in your development, that you have come into your own. Far from feeling washed-up and unattractive, you have a more favourable body image than younger women do, and you rate your sexual attractiveness and overall physical condition pretty high. What influences your body image now is not your actual age, but your subjective age – how young or old you feel and judge your body to be, and how concerned you are by ageing.

A newfound sense of confident power is one of the most marked psychological changes in women in middle age. You feel more personally powerful than at any other stage of your life. Your self-esteem increases. The heavy-duty years of young adulthood are over. You are still busy but are beginning to carve out what you longed for back then – more time for yourself. You are less prey to feeling anxious, unappreciated, resentful. Your desire for autonomy surges. You want to reacquaint yourself with yourself. You are less defensive, more open. You possess yourself in a new way.

The seniority, status and increased confidence that comes with middle age also lightens the pressure on men to maintain 'face'

You can’t be physically young any more. Most of you don’t want to be young again. You are relieved that feeling naive, junior and inexperienced is now behind you, or at least more artfully disguised. But you do want to feel young, to remain enthusiastic, optimistic, daring and game for life. You want to stay attuned to the abundance and possibility of life, and to the potential in yourself to meet that possibility.

At midlife, as children get older and more independent, that pressure lifts. Women feel freer to focus more on themselves and are more at home with their own power. The seniority, status and increased confidence that comes with middle age also lightens the pressure on men to maintain "face". They feel less emotionally constricted, free to express their feelings more openly.

This is an extract from Your One Wild and Precious Life: How to be Happy, Fulfilled and Successful at Every Age by Maureen Gaffney (Penguin). You can order the book here