When he turned 45, Mitch Alsup bought a red Corvette.
Mitch is a quick-talking guy with dirty blonde hair and a short, trim physique. He has a ready smile and is willing to share his story.
“As a kid, I use to go down to the Chevrolet dealership and sit in a Corvette,” he recalls. “I wanted one when I turned 18, but I came from a poor family. I had to pay my way through Memphis State to become an electrical engineer. It took me seven years to get my degree because I was working and paying my tuition. And you know how it goes — I got married, had kids and a house to pay for.”
Still, each month for five years, Mitch made car payments, $60,000 in total, to buy his dream machine. Each Sunday, he drove to the grocery store in his Corvette and parked it at the far edge of the lot. Other days, he kept it waxed in the garage, protected from the sun and rain. His vanity plate reads: “MR ALSUP”
“My wife encouraged me to buy it,” he says. “The day I drove the Corvette home, I had such a big smile that my face started to hurt. That day, I thought, was the happiest day of his life.” But it wasn’t so.
Mitch’s story, as well as recent National Public Radio reporting on midlife, has me asking, “What do we want from this stage of life?”
Many people assume happiness declines as we grow older and our bodies age. But research shows that happiness tends to follow a U-shaped cure — with the abyss being in midlife. This is often due to greater responsibility and stress, with mortgages, children’s tuition, job pressure and house maintenance.
Hearing Mitch’s story, my wife says this is a classic midlife crisis. How many people suddenly pursue a dream that makes them feel young again, whether it’s tooling around town in a red sports car or having a fling? In this scenario, our fears about sagging muscles, wrinkles, and loss of thrilling romance drive us to act the part of our younger selves. Feeling our lives have become ho-hum, we long for renewed spark.
But studies find that the concept of “midlife crisis” is a myth. It was a term coined by a psychoanalyst, and only 10 percent of people go through this existential inquiry about life. Although we may lose a job or a spouse in midlife, or suffer a major illness, these are crises during a midlife that misunderstood as “midlife crises.”
Midlife is really about learning to thrive with new goals and objectives. Former NPR reporter Barbara Bradley Hagerty conducted 400 interviews about midlife and found these solutions, which she offers in her new book, “Life Reimagined”:
Concentrate on what matters most, such as marriage and children over work.
Challenge yourself: It’s easy to play it safe as we gain experience.
Learn something new every day: Be a rookie at something.
Add milestones to your midlife, whether it’s finishing a degree you’d given up on, training for a marathon, dedicating yourself to a worthy cause, or running for school board.
Setbacks are OK. They are part of life and actually make us learn and continue growing.
Avoid boredom and mutual neglect in your personal and marital relationships. Keep romance alive within your marriage, not outside of it.
But the most important lesson Hagerty gives is this: “Aim for long-term meaning rather than short-term happiness, and you will likely find both.”
In fact, this is what happened with Mitch. It has been seven years since Mitch purchased the Corvette, and recently when we met, my wife asked him about his car. Mitch said, in a matter-a-fact manner, “Well, I paid it off a few years ago and gave it away.”
My wife and I looked at each other in astonishment.
“I go to a men’s ministry group which meets each month,” Mitch said. “All sorts of folks come, many who have gone through difficulties in life. The group needed funds.”
So one Monday, Mitch and his wife went to their accountant and asked how they could donate the car. Mitch put it on Craigslist, and a middle-age man bought it within 4 hours. On Tuesday, Mitch took the cashier’s check and donated it to his ministry. “This will do so much good. I cannot think of a better charity. ”
“It was a life-changing event,” Mitch continued, with his biggest smile, “to give away my favorite material possession.” For years, even his kids and close friends didn’t know of his charitable contribution. Now he shares it only when he is asked.
Midlife crisis may be a myth, but midlife purpose is real. And in his search, Mitch found that purpose not in material possession but in meaning.