It’s been said ad nauseam that our culture celebrates youth. From ads to TV shows to music to social media, virtually everything seems to be catered to young people. And there’s nothing wrong with that; we’ve all been part of that group, after all.

In contrast, the common perception of middle age leans toward the negative. Loss of hair and the addition of gray. Loss of skin tone and the addition of wrinkles. Loss of energy and weight gain.

When you look beneath the surface, though, there’s so much more than meets the eye when it comes to the middle-age years. And the good news is you can have a say in how much you enjoy it by the choices you make.

The meaning of middle age

You may be asking, “What is considered middle age, anyway?” Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary defines it as approximately ages forty-five to sixty-four. For added context, it also provides synonyms and near-synonyms like “adulthood,” “maturity,” and my personal favorite, “ripeness.”

But middle age being fortysomething to sixtysomething wasn’t always the norm. Consider this: the average life expectancy today is seventy-nine years. A century ago, it was fifty-three—smack-dab in the middle of what’s considered middle-aged today. Fifty years before that, the life expectancy was around forty, so, in 1870, “middle age” technically would have been one’s twenties.

The moral of the story is that thanks to advances in science and better health education, we now live longer than any other time in human history. And that means there’s more opportunity to celebrate and make the most of your midlife. The key is knowing how.

How to have a happy midlife

Prioritize your health.
Chances are if you have a family, you’re in the habit of putting others’ needs—including health needs—before your own. The older people get, though, the more important it is to get regularly scheduled preventative medical exams, including ones specifically for this age group. One commonly known midlife procedure is a colonoscopy, which can help detect colorectal cancer and other serious digestive issues early. Though once recommended starting at age fifty, experts now suggest having your first one at forty-five.

In addition, mammograms and Pap tests are even more important now, as are prostate exams. You’re also more likely to develop diabetes, skin cancer, and shingles in middle age, so be sure to discuss preventive treatments and testing for these with your doctor if you haven’t already. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, after all.

And it probably goes without saying, but if you keep moving and eat well, it can go a long way toward improving your well-being. Middle-aged people are more likely to suffer from aches and pains than when they were younger, so stay active by doing at least thirty minutes of daily moderate-level activity, such as brisk walking, which can help you feel more energized and feel better physically. In addition, eating good-for-you foods like fruits, veggies, nuts, and whole grains daily can improve your overall well-being and even help you live longer.

Acknowledge and address middle-age mental health issues.
Having discussed physical health, let’s talk about mental health—specifically the big one, the renowned midlife crisis. In short, this is when your mind starts wondering, “Is this all there is?” which can result in making life changes. It can be triggered by many things, including comparing your life with those around you, realizing your mortality, feeling your age, or experiencing an empty nest (or, with more twentysomethings living at home, not experiencing it).

While these are all realities for many middle-aged people, there’s still abundant hope. You can always discuss your situation with a mental-health professional, who can help you work your way through it. And the tips that follow can also help you keep your head amid the stress.

Focus on the positives
Despite what society may say, there are many reasons why middle age can be a great time of life. Here are just a few to consider.

  • More stability: People in middle age often have an established career, an established home, and an established family. These are big checkboxes for life, and they can springboard you to planning what adventures will come next.
  • A unique perspective: During middle age, you don’t sweat the little things as much. You’ve loved and lost. You’ve made mistakes and have learned from them. You now understand better what’s in your control and what’s not. For example, with life being so established, worrying about what others think tends to dissipate with age. Did oily skin torment you as a teenager? You may have fewer wrinkles now than other people your age. Dealt with acne? That’s likely in your past. Indulging in occasional sweets is also OK, as are makeup-free days and being seen in comfy sweatpants. You can now let others freak out about the small things.
  • Continued learning: Middle age can be a new beginning. When you were in school, you may have hated being forced to learn. At this age, though, you tend to love learning more, and you have more time to do so. You may even discover new passions and hobbies that bring you joy and fulfillment. Along the way, you’ll learn more about yourself and open new worlds for you to explore.
  • Time for you: By this age, your kids may be in college or starting their careers and are almost done being raised. This finally leaves time to fully prioritize yourself more often if you haven’t done so already—without the guilt. Who wouldn’t love that?

Anticipate even brighter days ahead.
That’s not a misprint. As far as happiness goes, there’s a theory called the U-bend of life, a result of studies that indicate that middle age is when we become most content with life—and that happiness keeps increasing as we age. This can vary based on one’s circumstances, of course, but knowing this notion exists can provide hope while we navigate through midlife into our golden years.

It’s been said that “In the end, it’s not the years in your life that count. It’s the life in your years.” So if you’re in middle age, be sure to take the time to embrace all the good this time of life offers despite the well-known challenges. Doing what you can to maximize your physical and mental health, while also appreciating the inherent benefits of middle age, can help you control your quality of life and make a big difference in how much you enjoy these precious years.