5 Reasons Why Turning 50 Deserves a Ritual—and How to Create One That Will Set You Up for a Brilliant Second Half of Life
A wailing siren and a soft, reassuring hand. That is all I remember about the moments before my heart stopped.
Doctors at an emergency room in St. Louis would go on to tell me I flatlined a total of nine times over the course of 90 minutes. And while the rest of my memories of that day are opaque, I can still see in my mind’s eye the dream-like image that was swirling around my brain when I woke up in that ER: thick, sweet, fragrant oil dripping down a set of beautiful, dark wooden stairs in slow motion.
I believe this was my experience of “seeing the light” when death was at my doorstep.
I was just 47 years old at the time. The five years leading up to that point were some of the darkest of my life. I’d been running a company with 3,500 employees and realized I didn’t love my work anymore. My long-term relationship had ended and not by my choice. A flurry of friends had committed suicide. And my adult foster son was wrongly in prison.
Looking back on that time in my life now, I realize I was experiencing a low point—a veritable dark night of the soul. Thankfully, my near-death experience was a kind of divine intervention that led me down a path of exploration. Why had my late 40s been so full of angst? Why do so many of us feel like we hit a low point as our 50th birthdays come into view?
My big ah-ha moment was when I realized the answer to these questions may have something to do with our lack of rituals in the second half of life.
Think about it: In the first 30 or so years, our lives are filled with ritual. Baptisms. First holy communions. Bar and Bat Mitzvahs. Graduation. Marriage. Bridal showers. Baby showers. These beautiful rituals act as a rest stop for the soul; they’re an opportunity for your community to hold a mirror to you and say, “Hey, you’re going through a big transition, and we’re here to support you.”
Yet while our 40s, 50s, 60s, and beyond are filled with very big transitions, we have no rituals to mark them. Women go through menopause. Men go through andropause. Our kids leave home and we become empty nesters. Our parents get sick and we become caretakers. Big, scary health diagnoses start to happen for us and for those we love most. And we have nothing in the way of rituals or rites of passage to help us feel seen and held during these tumultuous times.
It's time we change that, and I’d like to propose we start by celebrating 50.
Here are five reasons why turning 50 deserves a ritual—and how to think about creating one that helps you embrace and make the most of every birthday that follows.
No. 1: A ritual helps you shift your mindset about what’s to come.
In my late 40s, I was experiencing a very dark time filled with angst and unhappiness. Social science research proves this to be true for many of us: There’s a “U-curve” of happiness, and our life satisfaction tends to bottom out somewhere around age 45 to 50.
In his book, The Happiness Curve: Why Life Gets Better After 50, Jonathan Rauch writes: “Younger people consistently and markedly overestimated how satisfied they would be five years later, while older people underestimated future satisfaction. So, youth is a period of perpetual disappointment, and older adulthood is a period of pleasant surprise.”
Think of a 50th birthday ritual as a road marker of sorts, alerting you that there’s one helluva positive U-curve around the corner. Turns out the best really is yet to come, and a ritual can help you trust that this will be true for you, too.
No. 2: A ritual prompts you to explore your interior life.
Between age 45 and 65, we experience a transitional period known as middlescence—pronounced middle essence. Around age 50, some of the ways we’ve looked at ourselves and how we are in the world start to shift. These stirrings in your soul are ones to explore.
For some, these stirrings may prompt what we think of as the midlife crisis. Someone goes out and buys the expensive car, for example, or has an affair. But if you take the time to explore your soul’s stirrings on a deeper level, I think you’ll have what’s called a midlife chrysalis rather than a midlife crisis.
Remember learning about the beautifully transformative process by which a caterpillar morphs into a butterfly. Well, in early adulthood, we are caterpillars feeding on all kinds of leafy resources to prepare ourselves for the chrysalis of midlife, when we will hang upside down, spin ourselves a silky cocoon, and then come out the other side as a colorful flying insect.
But like the caterpillar, if you were to open the cocoon mid-morphosis, it would be a gooey mess. This, my friends, is midlife. However, a midlife ritual helps us stop worrying about gooey mess and focus on the coming emergence that will help us fly.
No. 3: A ritual gives you an opportunity to do “the great midlife edit.”
Life can feel a bit like a run-on sentence without any punctuation. A ritual provides that punctuation. It helps you break out of your habitual ways of being and allows you to reimagine who you are and what you do. I think the time we need this punctuation most is after age 50, when it can be very tempting to fall into habits that don’t serve us.
During the first half of life, we are in what I call accumulate mode. We accumulate friends. Jobs. Responsibilities. Children. Obligations. The next thing we know, we’re somewhere around age 45 or 50 and feel burdened by all of this stuff we’ve accumulated. Which presents a perfect opportunity to do a “midlife edit.”
Ultimately, midlife is not about the fear of death, as some academics suggest; it’s about the fear of not truly living, summed up so eloquently by the poet Mary Oliver when she asked, “What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” Your midlife edit can be tricky and challenging, and it requires a healthy dose of support and love from those around you. Enter a 50th birthday ritual, which can offer you that support and love as you figure out what to “edit” out of your life right now to make room for new stories to emerge.
No. 4: A ritual gives us a chance to design our “midlife atrium.”
In her 2010 book, Composing a Further Life: The Age of Active Wisdom, Mary Catherine Bateson suggests we build our years of increased longevity the way that we might build a new room addition onto our home. “Adding a room to a house is likely to change the way all the rooms are used,” she writes. “Rather than building something on at the back, we are moving the walls and creating an atrium in the center. The atrium is filled with fresh air and sunlight, and it presents an opportunity for reflection on all the rooms that open off of it.”
In other words, the increased longevity we may have compared to our parents or grandparents doesn’t necessarily mean an extra ten years occurring at the end of our life. Rather, it means we have an extra decade, or atrium, in our midlife. Maybe this will inspire you to create an architectural blueprint for a midlife atrium, complete with a variety of choices of how to spend those extra midlife years. (This is what we do at the Modern Elder Academy.) Maybe you want to launch a new career. Maybe you decide it’s time to evaluate your life less in terms of social competition and more in terms of social connectedness? Maybe you want presence to overrule performance.
Philosopher William Irvine suggests, “People are unhappy in large part because they are confused about what is valuable.” An atrium in midlife offers us the space to gain clarity.
No. 5: A ritual is easier to create than you might imagine.
Big birthdays are often a time for celebration, with a major holiday or a big party. When you add a bit more intention to those celebrations, you turn them into rituals.
A dozen years ago, I celebrated my 50th birthday at Burning Man with a camp of more than 100 friends. I’ve enjoyed other birthday celebrations in Bali, Marrakech, and Baja. But, it was on my 50th that I started a new, very personal ritual that I continue today.
On the weekend before or after my birthday, I spend a minimum of a half-day alone in a space where I won’t be distracted and where nature is near. I go for walks and reflect upon my greatest lessons of the past year, as I believe that our life lessons are the raw material for our future wisdom. Once I’ve identified my top five list of personal and professional lessons, I ask myself, “How will these lessons serve me this next year?”
And, finally, I consider the five people in my life who’ve had the biggest positive impact on me in the past year. I write a paragraph about each and how they tangibly made a difference in my life. Then, as my birthday gift to them, I reach out to those five people separately and tell them why they mean so much to me. The greatest gift is often the one you give, not the one you receive.
I share this glimpse into my recent birthday ritual in the hopes that it’ll inspire you to take some time to reflect on what a ritual might look like for you. As you can see, a ritual doesn’t have to be fancy or expensive. It doesn’t even have to be preceded by a dark night of the soul.
It can simply be a chance to mark the big transitions you’re undoubtedly going through in midlife and beyond, and to remind yourself that life really can and does get better with age.
Chip Conley is the co-founder and CEO of Modern Elder Academy—the first-ever “midlife wisdom school” dedicated to guiding and supporting adults through periods of transition in life. Chip is also a New York Times bestselling author, the former CEO and founder of Joie de Vivre Hospitality, and the former Head of Global Hospitality and Strategy at Airbnb, where he served as a “modern elder,” offering wisdom to the company’s three founders. His newest book Learning to Love Midlife is available on pre-order. To learn more, visit chipconley.com.