Gail Sheehy: Boosting Your Well-Being

Gail Sheehy brings us the first in a four-part series on Passages to Well-Being, an exploration of what contributes to high levels of contentment in women ages 45 to 55, the largest demographic in America today

She’s at the peak of the mountain — 50 years young — with a child old enough to drive himself to school and a husband who comes home to make her lunch as she telecommutes to a job that helps the world.

This is a thumbnail sketch of Mary Claire Orenic, who might be one of the happiest women in America. We found her through Healthways, a well-being improvement firm that partners with Gallup to take the daily measure of Americans’ attitudes and behaviors.We asked Healthways to tease out of its data what contributes to high well-being for the largest demographic in America today – women age 45 to 55. Happiness is fleeting. Well-being is a sustained background of physical, emotional and social health.

This week, we present that well-being data and one happy woman who embodies it. Plus, we offer action steps you can take to boost your well-being, how different your demographics.

Mary Claire Orenic stretches during her walk in Manhattan Beach, California (photo by Robert Hanashiro, USA TODAY)

What defines well-being?

Accomplishment, engagement and meaning is what high well-being boomer women find in their work and community. Younger boomers of highest well-being are the most career-oriented of any women. Most work full-time, a striking difference from younger and older generations of high well-being women, most of whom do not work. They enjoy a family income of $120,000 and up. Money is important, but not top priority.

They made good marriages. Midlife offers a chance to rekindle romance, since they have no children under 18 in the house. And for now, at least, they are blessedly free of family caregiving responsibilities for aging or infirm parents.

Their support network — family and at least four devoted friends — is very strong. More than other women, they are likely to be spiritual or religious. Most important, they approach life with a highly positive attitude.

It’s no surprise they are not bogged down by worry, sadness, and depression, emotional health problems reported by more than 20% of women in midlife. A recent study finds that one in four women age 45 to 59 take anti-depressants.

More of the women in the Healthways highest well-being circle are white and live in California, in walkable communities outside of large urban centers. They have, on average, no more than a 10-minute commute. That helps them maintain an ideal exercise schedule — 30 minutes a day up to six times a week. They make healthy meal choices with lots of fruits and veggies and keep their body-mass index below 30, the threshold for obesity.

Former underachiever

Mary Claire Orenic fits most of these criteria. “I’m lucky to be married to a man I adore and living in a community we love,” she reflects. Growing up in a frigid corner of Wisconsin, she had been adamant about her dream: “I’m moving to California — I want to play beach volleyball!” And that is exactly what she does on weekends in Manhattan Beach, a small community south of Los Angeles, to unwind from a 45- to 60-hour work week. She plays with her athletic son, Christopher, 17, who is being wooed by a half-dozen colleges.

“I sure didn’t start out as an achiever,” she says, laughing at how her life has turned out.

She was a slacker in high school, getting by with a B average. She told her friends going to four-year colleges they were crazy. She chose a technical school and worked nights and weekends in a trauma center. “Once I started working, I wanted to be an achiever!”

Ultrasound was brand new then. “I was astute enough to understand supply and demand,” she says, and she learned the specialty. At 23, as her college-graduate friends had trouble finding jobs, Mary Claire was managing the ultrasound department in a community hospital.

She stayed single to travel the country and advance her career. At 27, her long-distance boyfriend joined her and they became engaged. Soon she and husband Chris, who went to optometry college at her suggestion, planned the timing of parenthood. When he finished his residency, she was 33. “I’m ready to have a baby now,” she told him, “but I want to keep working.” With a six-figure income in sales, she wanted to sock away money to be secure in midlife. Chris liked the idea of being a part-time home-daddy for the baby’s first year. They made a clear-headed decision to have only one child.

At 39, she announced to her bosses at a Silicon Valley startup, “I need to move on from sales to the next challenge; now I get my joy from helping to mentor other people.” A new position was created for her.

To advance, she needed new skills and credentials. So this one-time goof-off spent five years, at night, while working fulltime, to complete her undergraduate degree and earn an MBA at Pepperdine University. It paid off. Mary Claire now enjoys being director of business development for Siemens Healthcare.

At least two days a week, she telecommutes from a home-office with dual computers to separate her personal and business lives. Some weeks she travels and works 60 hours. But when she needed to miss a budget presentation to travel to an international tournament with her boy, her CEO said, “Mary Claire, go watch your son!”

The Orenics’ life has had downturns like everyone else’s: a contractor who swindled them; a failed business partnership; and just before the American economy sank, they risked their life savings by starting an advanced eye care center. By 2009, the business outlook was grim. Today they are doing better than pre-recession.

Fitness is a priority. Mary Claire walks several mornings with a next-door friend, “a great time to vent and help each other sort out what’s going on in our lives,” she says. Her husband taught her basketball and they shoot together on Saturday mornings. Her secret weapon is the elliptical machine jammed into a small garage, where she can pedal and read the paper while watching the washing machine.

All this activity keeps her 5’6″ body whittled down to 115 pounds.

Her friends are equally busy, but she can count on ten who would respond if she needed help. “That makes me feel secure and happy,” she says. Her mother is healthy and sublimely happy, having remarried 10 years ago at age 76.

Now, in midlife, this loving couple can luxuriate in after-dinner walks on the beach and run into friends and neighbors, all of whom know Doc Orenic because he gives them their eye exams. They are totally content in their cozy, 2,300-foot Spanish stucco house they bought in 1997. Their favorite activity is family dinner on the deck they built, where Chris grills fish and veggies while their son plays guitar. Her living room invites reading in oversized armchairs; the TV is behind closed doors.

“I’ll miss my son when he leaves, but he’s turned out pretty darn well,” she says. “That accounts for a lot of my optimism about the next five years.”

Journalist and lecturer Gail Sheehy is the author of 16 books about adult life stages, including Passages in Caregiving: Turning Chaos into Confidence. This article originally appeared on

One Response so far.

  1. avatar Joan Larsen says:

    First of all, I must say that I love and admire Gail Sheehy and her writing, finding her books “right on” in exploring the PASSAGES of our lives.  Like Gail, I believe that one must “live” through life’s experiences to be able to guide us through these crossroads in life.  For those who – in a single phone call – find themselves mired in the Caregiving phase of life without a paddle, her latest book as well as some wonderful interviews that she has given go far to make us believe that “we can” do this phase when we have such helpful advice.

    One of the phrases I use more than others is “well-being” and yet find it seldom used as the way to address how we feel as we enter our 50s (or thereabouts) and hopefully find that we have come into our own in ways we would not have imagined.  Far too often we are asked to question if we are ‘happy” in our lives.  No wonder the question makes us stop.  True happiness – if we do find it – only comes in moments.  It is NOT a state of being.  But I too have found that the greatest well-being shows itself at 50 or beyond.  It feels like “a rush”:  we are confident, sure of ourselves, can handle things, and hopefully (!!) speak up for ourselves with no problem.  We have it together — or we are edging in that direction.

    Unfortunately, Gail’s example of Mary Claire — her lifestyle and work — may be something that we may reach for but not achieve.  Or we may question if working ANY week of 60 hours coincides with our own feeling that we must “live each day as if were to be our last”.  When we, who are a bit older, tell you that – in looking back — the most important things to wish for are good health and warm family and REAL friends there for you thru thick and thin — well, that FACT has to be considered.  Again, choices, but reasoned choices. 

    But our lives and our times have changed radically in the past several years.  We find that jobs can disappear overnight and our beautiful lifestyle has to be adjusted a bit downward.  However, I find that we are far better to cope, to explore new beginnings (which are often the only way), and find that we are – like it or not – learning and growing as we do.  I find that often that only then do we fully realize what is important – truly important – in our lives.  Attitude — that positive way of thinking — will hold us in good stead.  Boosting well-being?  Using your mind, bolstering your outreach, and getting out there walking with stimulating conversation of others around you (I walk with 6 men every morning before work — and have for years — and the hour flies by.  I highly recommend it!!!!!) and you feel on top of the world. 

    When you sense that feeling of well-being you will know it.  Grab it tightly and never ever let it go.

    P.S.  The way I feel, well, at 50-something you have only just begun!!!