Never had it so good?

Life is good. And as I was saying to an old friend yesterday Covid has certainly helped me to get a better balance in my life. A change of job, no time wasted on public transport, and an enhanced ability to manage my own time and energy are among the dividends of this pandemic.

So, encouraging to read in the New Scientist this week that terminal decline isn’t something to worry too much about either:

While 20-somethings may win a sprint, performance in many other sports can reach a high later in life. That’s not to mention factors like emotional well-being and mental discipline, which rise and fall in unexpected patterns. And despite nostalgia for the joys of youth, for most of us, our happiest days are actually yet to come.

And I must say that’s certainly how it feels to me. The New Scientist suggests there are seven stages:

  1. CHILDHOOD The era for original thinking and imagination.
  2. ADOLESCENCE The peak of curiosity and risk taking, which reaps rewards in later life.
  3. TWENTIES The fast years, but are they really the happiest?
  4. THIRTIES When superpowers of endurance make up for any loss of speed.
  5. FORTIES A peak time for emotional intelligence and ability to focus.
  6. FIFTIES AND SIXTIES Reaping the rewards of your crystallised intelligence.
  7. SEVENTY-PLUS A peak time for wise reasoning and making the best decisions.

I’m not sure I entirely recognise all these. I was fabulously unfit in my early thirties, and the brain scrambling effect of young children means I can’t remember much of our early 40s. Also I’m not entirely thrilled about being lumped in with sixty-somethings… (Sorry sixty-somethings!)

Still adding crystallised to emotional intelligence is certainly one of the gifts of your 50s. So long as you can keep fit and guard against cynicism, it helps to have seen a good many things happen before.

As the article says:

Contrary to popular opinion, humans seem to have evolved to flourish into middle age and beyond.

A good friend of mine told me this a decade ago. He wasn’t wrong.

Redrawing Lines

Learning to listen and learning to care for people hasn’t always been my forte. I’ve always read the data: the expressions, the fleeting emotion crossing someone’s face, the tic which tells all. But for much of my life I tended to routinely discard it. At work, for well over a decade, I pretty much thought emotions were to be ignored or surpressed – in favour of a pseudo-objective norm of ‘professional workplace behaviour’.

In the private sector this was a good protection mechanism against loss, and having to do bad things to people. People all around me were regularly ‘fed to the huskies’ in round after round of redundancies in in the late 1990s and I had to do some of it. Later in the Civil Service, you were always one honest comment away from a newspaper headline or a grievance procedure, so wise to stick to the party line.

Latterly, helped by a bit more more experience, some professional advice and two lovely children, I’ve learnt that my emotions and feelings – and my assumptions about those of others – condition nearly everything that happens to and around me. Best start using that data then.

So now I very much do. And through practice and a certain amount of inner calm, I can read and help people with their problems. It used to take me a huge mental effort – a short ’emoting’ session would leave me shattered. I’ve got better at it now. A few techniques help. But also tuning in to my own emotions, rather than using my head to respond, gets a far better result for much less effort.

The problem is I’ve become so good at it, that I’m now in demand. A steady stream of people regularly check in with me to unburden themselves, complain of injustices or moan about the world going to the dogs. Of course it’s nice to help. It’s also flattering to think I can. But sometimes I give too much. And sometimes to the wrong people.

This week a friend and I discussed emotional intelligence and a penny dropped – it’s time to redraw some boundaries with people I work with. I’m at work to get a job done and my emotional energy is the most precious resource I have. Sometimes helping people emotionally doesn’t help get the job done. And it takes it out of me. I need to spend my emotional energy more wisely at work and use it sparingly where it is most needed – to make a difference. 

But more importantly I need to save more of it for me – to invest it where it pays the richest return – in my friends and family. And that means redrawing some lines.