Setting New Year’s Intentions in Middle Age

7 minute read
Conley is a New York Times bestselling author and founder of the first midlife wisdom school, MEA. Conley's book, Learning to Love Midlife: 12 Reasons Why Life Gets Better with Age, will be released January 16, 2024

By midlife, we have picked up some habits and mindsets that feel nearly impossible to shake. We get comfortable in our discomfort, whether it’s the way we communicate with our spouse, our attitude toward work, our mindset regarding our body, or our belief system about how the world works.

By midlife, many of us have given up on the whole idea of New Year’s Resolutions because we believe we’re destined for 2024 to be just like 2023…and 2013 and 2003. As social psychologist Dan Gilbert once said, “Human beings are works in progress that mistakenly think they're finished.” But, that doesn’t have to be the case, and oftentimes isn’t.

I’ll admit it: Gilbert could have been talking about me; or at least me in my mid-to-late 40s. It was during the Great Recession. The company I’d founded 20 years earlier was at risk of becoming insolvent, my long-term relationship was ending, and my adult foster son was wrongfully going to prison. I felt stuck, personally and professionally. New Year’s Resolutions felt like a ridiculous lift because everything was going wrong at the same time. There were so many resolutions I could have made—I didn’t even know where to start.

And, then, in 2008, I had an allergic reaction to an antibiotic and had a Near Death Experience (NDE), which was the perfect wake-up call for making change in my life. Prior to my NDE, with my 50’s looming on the horizon, I figured that the time for making meaningful change in my life had passed me by. The NDE made me realize that there was no better time than now.

Over the past few years, partly due to my own midlife challenge and, partly due to the fact I lost a few friends to midlife suicide, I became a student of a life stage with bad branding: the “midlife crisis.” After spending time with thousands of midlifers and working with academics on what’s called “middlescence,” I’ve come to realize that midlife is less of a crisis and more of a chrysalis—a time with the potential for deep transformation.

As we approach the new year, I believe that reframing a “resolution” as an “intention” is one way to improve our odds of feeling success in 2024. Whereas a resolution feels like a directive with two possible outcomes—success or failure—intentions are directional and represent an ongoing effort.

Here are four intentions that can help set you up not just for 2024, but for the rest of your life:

Remember how much of your adult life is still ahead of you

Most of us don’t have much “longevity literacy.” In other words, at 63, when I hear that the average longevity for a man in the U.S. is about 73, I might think I only have a dozen years ahead of me. But, this neglects a whole variety of factors (including the tragic fact that U.S. longevity is incredibly impacted by socioeconomics and access to health care). When I factor in my family history, personal health status, and demographics, I may live till 90, so I still have 30% of my life ahead of me.

My realization that I have so much of my life still ahead of me opened up doors and possibilities that re-energized me. I’ve tried my hand (and mostly my clumsy feet) at surfing, am speaking Spanish for the first time, and have taken up pickleball. (Okay, I know, every midlifer is expected to be a pickleballer, right?) I’m convinced that when you start to realize how much life you still have ahead of you, you’re more willing to try something new. It’s never too late to become a beginner again.

Let go of the mindsets, identities, and relationships that no longer serve you

Running the midlife marathon is best done without carrying extra baggage. The first half of life is often about adding and accumulating not just possessions, friends, or romantic relationships, but also all those professional roles and titles we’ve held, all those mindsets that guided us, and all those stories that defined us. The second half of life is about editing—letting go of that which no longer works for you. I call this the “Great Midlife Edit” and it’s a perfect ritual to start the year. Write on a piece of paper all the mindsets, roles, identities, relationships, and obligations that have run their course in your life and throw them in the fireplace on a cold winter evening as you dedicate to replacing them with something new that will nourish you. By emptying some of the contents from your suitcase of life, you have created the space to add new intentions.

Treat time as a valuable asset

Anticipated regret is a form of wisdom. And learning from your past—metabolizing your life lessons—is the raw material for your future wisdom. It’s worth asking what do you know now, or have you done now which you wish you’d learned or done 10 years ago? It could be learning to cook or garden, starting a journaling practice every morning, or walking the Camino de Santiago sacred pilgrimage in Spain. Time is our most valuable asset as we age and it’s a nonrenewable resource. If you spend a dollar, you can make another one. But, if you waste a day, a year, a decade, you don’t get it back. Think of your time as an investment at this stage in your life.

Understand wellness as a shared responsibility

There are many variables that influence living a long, good life including how you eat, exercise, and sleep, but there’s one variable that stands, far and away, ahead of all the others: how socially connected we feel. It’s time we started thinking of wellness as a social activity. What if you began to look at your wellness as a shared responsibility, striving for social, not just personal, wellness. Maybe it’s time to count not how many steps we took or how many calories we consumed today, but how many sunsets we experienced with our spouse, how many times we felt goosebumps during a deep conversation with our closest friends, or how many times we smiled at a stranger. Your Great Midlife Edit has created the space for social connection. Friends aren’t a “nice-to-have.” They’re a “need-to-have.” Our friends, family and community are our “emotional insurance.” Resolve to invest in your community in the year ahead. 

New Years is a transitional time, and midlife acts in the same way. It’s when we’re no longer young, but not yet old. We’re all familiar with the heroic caterpillar to butterfly journey. Midlife for the butterfly is in the chrysalis. Sure, it’s liminal, dark, gooey, and solitary, but it’s also where transformation happens. When that chrysalis cracks open, there is the colorful, winged creature that delights us so much—the butterfly.

Let’s think of midlife as the dawning of a new era, a time when much of what we accumulated dissolves, just before we’re ready to transform, spread our wings, and pollinate our wisdom to the world in our 50s and beyond. Now, that’s an inspiring intention for 2024. You’re not just getting older—you’re getting better. Your best years are not behind you. They’re right now.

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