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Finding Happiness at Fifty

written by Doug Turner 15 April 2007

Douglas B. Turner, MAPP '06, is Corporate Vice President, Talent Management, for Balfour Beatty Construction,overseeing human resources, including leadership, management, employee training and development, team development, employee recruitment and retention, employee relations, and compliance. Full bio.

Doug's articles are here.

Yikes! I’m turning 50 in ten days.  It’s hard to believe.  Where did the time go?  What have I accomplished?  What have I contributed?  What do I want to accomplish and contribute in the next fifty years?

Sound familiar?  If you are at or beyond 50, you have undoubtedly asked yourself these questions.  If you are not yet at the 50 year mark, write these questions down – you’ll need them soon enough.

These milestones in life provide an opportunity to stop and consider where we’ve been, where we are, and where we want to go from here.  I remember asking myself these questions when I turned 20 and when I turned 30.  (Somehow 40 seemed to pass more quietly for me.)  Now I’m about to turn 50 – that’s a “5” and a “0.”  While I am unavoidably older, I hope I am also a little wiser.  One of the wisest things I’ve done lately is to read a great book by George Vaillant called Aging Well.

Dr. Vaillant is the director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development.  This impressive longitudinal study followed hundreds of people from their college days well into their eighties.  The findings are absolutely fascinating and provide some clues to making my next 50 years happy and meaningful.  Some significant findings from the study so far include the following:


  • It is not the bad things that happen to us that doom us; it is the good people who happen to us at any age that facilitate enjoyable old age.

  • A good marriage at 50 predicted positive aging at 80.

  • Learning to play and create after retirement and learning to gain younger friends as we lose our older ones add more to life’s enjoyment than retirement income.

  • Objective good physical health is less important to successful aging than subjective good health – it is all right to be ill as long as you do not feel sick.

Dr. Vaillant also identified six adult life tasks that we must master to age well. 

After finding an Identity (task one) that allows us to be separate from our parents, we must develop Intimacy (task two) which permits us to be involved with a partner. 

Next comes Career Consolidation (task three) where we find a way to contribute in a way that is valuable to both society and to ourselves.

Generativity (task four) is next and includes our concern and care for the next generation. 

Becoming a Keeper of the Meaning (task five) includes passing on the traditions of the past to the next generation thus linking the past with the future. 

Finally we come to Integrity (task six) where we achieve a sense of peace and unity with our lives and with the world.

At 50, I think I am in the midst of a transition from Career Consolidation (task three) to Generativity (task four).  At this stage of my life, I think I have enough “stuff.” I think I have enough “titles.”  I think I have enough certificates and plaques on my walls.  What I really want to do is to give something back, to clear the path for those who may follow, and to create something meaningful.

In the late 1970’s when I was a college student working on my bachelor’s degree I remember telling my favorite professor that I wanted to be a consultant and share all of the cool stuff I was learning with those who needed it.  I’ll never forget his response.  He told me that to be a good consultant, you had to be at least 53 years old.  Perhaps my professor knew that I needed to spend some time mastering the first three life tasks before I had anything to return in a Generative way.

While moving past 50 is daunting, Dr. Valliant’s work provides insights on doing it with grace, dignity, and poise.  In the end, “Positive aging means to love, to work, to learn something we did not know yesterday, and to enjoy the remaining precious moments with loved ones.”[iii]  That’s what I want to do at 50 and beyond.


Vaillant, G. (2003). Aging Well: Surprising Guideposts to a Happier Life from the Landmark Harvard Study of Adult Development. New York: Little Brown. First list from p. 13, second quotation from p. 45, final one from page 16. (italics added)

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Senia 15 April 2007 - 3:26 pm


When I read your articles, they strike me as so real. So absolutely authentic.

It’s interesting that only now are leadership books coming out with the idea that the character of the leader is what sets the stage for the character of the company.

In particular, a few phrases from your past few articles that are just as real as bread and butter on a Sunday morning:

* “At this stage of my life, I think I have enough “stuff.” I think I have enough “titles.” I think I have enough certificates and plaques on my walls. What I really want to do is to give something back, to clear the path for those who may follow, and to create something meaningful.” From today’s article.

* “I noticed that by beginning each meeting with the positive the tone of the rest of the meeting changed completely. Instead of feeling like we were digging out of a hole, we felt like we were on top of a mountain surveying a beautiful landscape. Of course we still discussed the struggles and the challenges, but this discussion came from a much more optimistic and hopeful context and the ideas flowed freely.” From Flourishing with the Positive.

* “Here’s what I learned: responding well is a choice. When faced with the reality of what life throws your way, you have a choice to make. It seems to me that this initial choice is pivotal and sets the direction of all that follows.” From Responding Well.

* “Moving from pessimism to optimism begins by listening to what you say to yourself in good times and in bad. You are your own most trusted advisor. What is your most trusted advisor telling you?” From Learning Optimism.

Maybe that’s something I read in what you’re writing: you listen to yourself as the most trusted advisor. And you’re responsive to that inner person. I’m not at all surprised that you are enjoying thinking about Generativity.


Rhea 15 April 2007 - 5:19 pm

When I was in my 30s and worked at Harvard, I interviewed Dr. Vaillant. I still remember some of his findings about resiliency in people and late-in-life happiness. I am now 48. Thank you for reminding me about his work.

Doug Turner 15 April 2007 - 5:41 pm

Senia: Thanks for your kind comments and thanks for providing such a wonderful forum for all of us. You do a fantastic job making us all look good. All the best, Doug

Doug Turner 15 April 2007 - 5:45 pm

Rhea: Participating in the MAPP program gave me the opportunity to meet and talk to Dr. Vaillant several times – most recently last October at our MAPP reunion / reception in Washington, DC. “Aging Well” was the first book I read as part of the MAPP reading assignments – I was hooked. In addition to being a interesting person, he is a wise Positive Psychologist. All the best, Doug

Christine Duvivier 16 April 2007 - 9:26 am

Dear Doug,

Welcome to the club– I turned 50 a few weeks ago and it feels great! I agree with your notes on George Vaillant’s wisdom. I also agree with your professor re: consulting (although I started a little younger than he suggested). It’s wonderful to be at a point in life where you feel you have as much ahead of you as behind you — and the focus on giving back is exciting.

Happy Birthday!

Senia 25 April 2007 - 12:15 am


Jeff Dustin 25 April 2007 - 9:33 am

Doug, feliz cumpleanos a ti


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