05/12/2012 05:17 pm ET Updated Jul 12, 2012

Can You "Grow Up" During Midlife? Here Are Five Ways

Not long ago conventional thinking about midlife held that it's a time for holding on as best you can in the face of steady decline and loss. But if you're a baby boomer, you know that's shifted as fellow boomers show more attention to health and want continued vitality -- even new growth - emotionally, sexually and creatively.

Nevertheless, many remain fearful of "going forth" or finding their "true self," partly because they know that illness, tragedy, unpredictable events and death can and do occur. I've written about these themes in some of my previous posts. For example, about depression during midlife. But overall, I find that learning to embrace both the "positive" and "negative" experiences of midlife is the path to growing up into full adulthood. That's especially relevant to the Post 50 years. So -- here are five suggested steps:

Elevate and Expand Yourself
Build the core emotional and mental strengths of empathy and compassion. Much research shows that this realm of your inner life is the foundation for well-being as well as for positive engagement and harmony, with people and events. Meditation helps "grow" those capacities. Research also shows that meditation leads to greater creative thinking. Another part of this step is "elevating" your perspectives about people and life situations. A broadened, more tolerant vista is especially crucial at midlife because seeing things from a "1,000 foot view" is the foundation for wisdom.

Embrace Death And impermanence
True, our culture avoids acknowledging death and change. But embracing them can lead to more intense connection with what really matters to you -- what to go after, while there's still time; and what to let pass by. Research conducted by the University of Missouri and the University of Leipsig confirms this, finding that awareness of death spurs re-thinking about your goals and values. It can also lead to greater physical health, through increasing your focus on healthy practices.

I wrote about change and impermanence in a previous post, and now, during midlife, dealing with them is more critical than ever. This step means accepting constant change with the awareness that you can't hold on to anything -- ever. Children grow and go forth in their own lives. People you know die. Physical and emotional shifts occur without your intent. Embracing them allows you to manage them; to maintain health and vitality within those changes. That is, to accept them as new experiences to learn from; rather than deny or resist them.

For example, studies show that your sexual desires and interests will shift and evolve in directions different from what you felt or wanted earlier in life. One study found that women's interest in their partner can shift after the appearance of grandchildren -- toward them, and away from their partner. Facing the range of changing realities and feelings, sexually, enables you to see what choices you truly have, now, less encumbered or restricted by old social norms or proscriptions.

Identify Your Purpose
Create and define what your life purpose is, at this point. You'll be healthier and more fulfilled. Research finds that midlifers who have a sense of purpose are more likely to have slower rates of mental decline as they age. One study, reported in Archives of General Psychiatry, found that engaging in meaningful and purposeful activities of any kind promotes cognitive health in later years. Other studies find that a sense of life purpose and identity during midlife is linked with, respectively, positive health and longevity; and overall well-being.

Resolve, Reconcile And Reframe Life Experiences
This includes choosing to resolve old emotional and family issues or grievances. At midlife, they tend to resurface with a vengeance, anyway. Most people need to consult a good psychotherapist to help resolve disturbing experiences. But regardless of how significant your psychological issues are, most everyone has the challenge of letting go of past grievances, slights, and hurts - whether from family members, friends, employers...or "the world."

So often, people harbor lifelong anger, rivalries or other negative emotions. But dwelling in them wastes vital emotional and mental energy. They sap your spirit, when the latter could lead to loving more fully, becoming more creative, or simply enjoying being alive -- while you can.

It's doable: Recent research shows you can change how you deal with negative memories, and move away from dwelling on them (unlike depressed people). You can reframe their meaning, learn from them and put them in a larger perspective and life context. Those who did that reappraisal and reframing -- rather than remaining frozen within negative emotions -- had a more cheerful, healthy outlook on life. Other research confirms that you can learn to change your personality over time, with awareness and effort. And new research with hallucinogens also shows that they can produce major transformation within yourself, as a recent Johns Hopkins study demonstrated.

Look in Front of You, Not Behind
Recognize that the one impact you can have on your life is how you conduct yourself in the aftermath of all your previous life experiences. Right now. In the present. Research confirms that this is more than a philosophical principle. One study found that how engaged you are with life during your middle years -- socially, mentally and physically -- is much more important for maintaining a sharper mind than what you did earlier in life. What matters is what you're doing now, each day. Other studies concur. Chris Boyce, the lead researcher in a University of Manchester study, found that a positive, present-focus orientation contributes greatly to changes in your wellbeing. "Our research suggests that by focusing on who we are and how we relate to the world around us has the potential to unlock vast improvements in our wellbeing."

Other research confirms that looking in front and not behind allows positive emotions to blossom. That helps you become more open and able to build resources for rebounding from adversity and stress; for becoming more open and flexible. And, especially, to be appreciative of whatever good you find in your daily circumstances.

These five steps towards "growing up" at midlife help you develop an orientation that's engaged, accepting of life's unpredictability and proactive in the face of whatever lies ahead. They help you focus more about what kind of "footprint" you want your own life -- a very brief moment in the scheme of things -- to leave behind.

Douglas LaBier, Ph.D., a business psychologist and psychotherapist, is director of the Center for Progressive Development in Washington, D.C. You may contact him at To learn more about him, click here.