The big chill: 4 helpful things I wish I’d known before the age of 40

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Relax, my friend. 

If there’s one power phrase I could teach my younger self, that would be it. 

My life aged 40 is just as mottled as it ever was. I still get stupid drunk, I still question my life choices, I still imagine a time when I’ll be a wiser and better upgrade of my current self. But – and it’s a big but – I’m far more chilled about the debris. 

Here are four things about that baseline sense of content that I’d wish I’d known about earlier on…

Work can and should be relaxing

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It’s second nature to most of us to divide our lives in two: on one side lies “work”, and on the other, “everything else”. The problem with this belief is that you begin to lump work into a broader swiss roll (and not even a tasty one) of non-stop stress and grind. And somehow that seems OK – because, well, work. 

This mindset is also an issue because it quickly snowballs into another pressure: the all-elusive goal of work-life balance. In reality, you don’t need balance if the work in your life has enough breathing space to begin with. 

I’m not suggesting that you can rock up to your desk every day and channel instant, Tamara Levitt-style zen. Of course, all jobs have their moments of hard graft, annoyance – full-on stress, even. But these should be blips between what is broadly a more calm and gratifying landscape. 

I wish I’d known earlier that a great job is both challenging and relaxing. Once doesn’t need to happen at the price of the other. And, on the flip side, if you find yourself panting your way through the week, frantically dashing from one small fire to the next before collapsing at any hint of a break; that’s your cue to make changes (no matter how good that role sounds or looks on paper).

You’ll never be truly “sorted”

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“It is a truth universally acknowledged that when one part of your life starts going okay, another falls spectacularly to pieces” – A lot of things have changed since the age of Bridget Jones but this insight is still spot-on. 

Life is not linear, nor is it something to win at. The truth is, you get older and more tired, possibly richer or smarter if you’re lucky. But at the same time, you’ll always be more or less the same “you”. Will you really ever write that book, buy a house, win the lottery or create the perfect family you imagined back in your childhood? Maybe not.

But the good news is, there’s huge freedom in that realisation. There is no map of life that you’re falling behind on. The only “failed goals” you beat yourself up about are those that come from within. 

Sure, you can make little, positive changes that lift your life for the better (hello, posh skincare). But overall life will just happen as it pleases, which is your invitation to improvise. The older I get, the more I see the joy that lies in letting go of the reins – aka, that tick-list of imaginary achievements.

For happiness, look to the past

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I don’t mean live in the past; by dwelling on photos of old boyfriends, say, or looking back wistfully on memories of your student flat-share circa 2002 (although, fact-check: a little nostalgia is good for the soul). Rather, it’s helpful to remember the things that made you happy as a kid – because they’re likely the same things that’ll make you happy now. 

Candyfloss. Arcade machines. Spending a whole day cycling the neighbourhood, just because. The giddy-sick feeling of gliding across a river on a homemade rope swing that might snap at any point. These are the kind of delirious joys we forget about as adults, as we get swept up in a vortex of deadlines and demands. 

In fact, the entire act of play is something that’s lost on grownups. We don’t go sledging or dress up or invent convoluted chase-games (at least, not outside our roles as parents or caregivers; and even then, not nearly as often as we could). 

North of 40, “adulting” is no longer a novelty or something to strive for. Rather, it’s a relentless grind. So, it makes sense to give yourself a break now and again – by revisiting your favourite childhood book, or ordering that Lego Star Wars set you’d once spend all your money on. Your inner kid will thank you…

Savour your headline relationships

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It’s our instinct to strive in life; to search for the next best thing, or airbrush our relationships until they’re exactly how we imagined them to be. The problem is, the ties we share as friends, family or lovers can’t really be Tippexed round the edges. 

Sure, you can and must air your feelings if someone has made you unhappy. But otherwise, it’s helpful to accept that people are who they are. And that’s an understanding that gains pace from the ‘20s (“I can change people!) to the 30s (“I can change some people”) and finally, the sweet relief of the 40s (“I can’t change people and shouldn’t try”). 

This realisation is important because it means you get proactive in a.) Leaving anyone who is toxic or indifferent, and, b.) Placing boundaries round the inbetweeners (the people you like or love, but who are also draining for whatever reason). The result is that c.) you’ll have more time to cherish the people whom you really love, including all their flaws – just as they do the other way round to you. These loved ones are your lifetime heroes.

As my elderly neighbour never tires of telling me, “We’ll all be six feet under soon enough”. With that cheery deadline in mind, I realise aged 40 that, most of all – this is life. Here and now. It isn’t about avoiding the mess, it is the mess. So I may well stop stage-managing, lean into the chaos and relax. It’ll all be over sooner than any of us know, after all. 

Images: courtesy of Anna Brech and Flash Pack

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