In From Strength to Strength, Finding Success, Happiness, and Deep Purpose in The Second Half of Life, Arthur C. Brooks discusses the Indian concept known as vanaprastha. It comes from the varnasrama system of Hinduism which splits up our lives into four distinct stages, each happening every 20-25 years—with vanaprastha being the all-important third stage. It works like this:
After our youthful first stage, in our early-20s we move to a second stage that lasts until we are about 50 years of age. In the second stage, we are driven by the pursuit of pleasure, sex, money, and accomplishments. But by the third stage, at around age 50, we begin to pull back from a focus on professional and social advancement. Instead, we become more interested in spirituality and faith. At least that’s how it happens for some of us.
The issue: Too many of us get stuck in stage 2.
In the West, we seem to have an especially tough time moving from stage 2 (climbing the ladder) to stage 3 (getting off the ladder or at least stopping our descent). We get caught up in the intoxicating sport of social and professional advancement. Yet, at the same time we are seeking more money, more accolades, more accomplishments, our skills have, in fact, begun to diminish.
Brooks presents compelling evidence that finds that in middle age, “the prefrontal cortex degrades in effectiveness.” Depending on your line of work, this usually happens “about 20 years after career inception” or as young as our early-40s. For many of us, it happens right around age 50. This loss of brainpower has several implications:
- Our rapid analysis and creative innovation abilities decrease
- Skills we once mastered, like multi-tasking, become “devilishly hard”
- Our crowded brains can no longer recall names and facts like we once did
Yet, even as these changes are happening, we “try to keep it going.” We “deny change and work harder,” in the vain hope “that our next success will bring the enduring success we crave.” Brooks calls it “the striver’s curse” and it can keep us stuck in stage 2 for years, even decades, past our prime. This can be a problem because:
People who strive to be excellent at what they do often wind up finding their inevitable decline terrifying, their successes increasingly unsatisfying, and their relationships lacking.
It’s known as the hedonic treadmill. We run and run and run but can’t seem to get ahead or achieve the level of success or contentment we are seeking. Nor will we.
That’s why, at age 50ish, we should consider moving to the 3rd stage.
Brooks tell us that the third stage (vanaprastha) means “letting go of things that defined us in the eyes of the world.” That means “chipping away” at our possessions and accomplishments. It’s time for a fresh new start as we establish a new set of skills and a greater focus on our spirituality. This involves:
- Pulling back from our personal and professional duties
- Becoming more devoted to our spiritual growth
- Putting our wisdom to use by sharing it with others
Which all helps us become happier, more contented people—a fact borne out by “mountains of research.” Brooks informs us that studies show “religious and spiritual adults are generally happier and generally suffer less depression than those who have no faith.” Religion and spirituality “are also linked to better physical health.”
You’re not getting older, you’re getting better. (Really)
The plus side to gliding past age 50 is there are some wonderful attributes that come with our increasing age. Brooks promises that “the chance to have a second half of adulthood that is not only not disappointing, but happier and more meaningful than the first.” The main reason: our experiences have made us wiser.
- We are better at combining and utilizing complex ideas and expressing them to others
- We are better able to interpret the ideas others have (even if we didn’t create them ourselves)
- We have what is known as “crystallized intelligence,” and are better able to use the knowledge we have gained during our lives
So this latter stage of life doesn’t mean we are “washed up.” We have the wisdom and experience that our younger peers and colleagues, and many of our friends and family, do not. This puts us in a position to mentor, advise, and teach others, to become “modern elders.” Brooks advises us to:
Devote the back half of your life to serving others with your wisdom. Get old sharing the things you believe are most important. Excellence is always its own reward, and this is how you can be most excellent as you age.
Brooks asks us to imagine being at a cocktail party where we are asked “what do you do?” You answer not with your job title or profession, but with the things that “give you the most purpose, meaning, and joy.”It is a new definition of success—and for those on the spiritual path raises the questions:
Have you moved past the second stage of life?
Are you on or ready for the third stage?