A couple of years ago, the wife of my cousin “snapped.” She recently crossed the north side of forty-five, had a teenage son, a good job, steady marriage, comfortable living. That is, your perfect epitome of a “normal life.”
Yet, something was “off” with her, a common friend told me. And indeed—because they live abroad, when I saw her, I barely recognized her. She looked great, no doubt—courtesy of the combination of a fitness instructor, a tanning bed and regular visits to an aesthetic clinic. She could always better-quality things too but that’s not what the “shocking” change was.
“I feel different,” she told me. “I have more self-respect now and want to take a better care of myself. I refuse to feel gloomy that my life is over.”
To the outsiders, though, it looked like she was having a midlife crisis and entering menopause. Everyone in the family expected her to run off with a hunky barista next, so that she can feel young again for a bit.
Well, this didn’t happen (to some people’s disappointment perhaps) but the stereotype prevailed. If it wasn’t this year, may be next she will have an affair, I was told by her “friend.” Otherwise, why go through such a sudden transformation if you don’t want to prove that forty-five is the new thirty, and that you still “got it”?
It is the typical way of thinking indeed—the midlife crisis narrative fueled by the image of a guy buying a luxury yacht all of the sudden one day and sailing into the sunset with his 20-something new girlfriend. Or a mid-aged woman finding a younger fling, so that she can feel wanted and sexy again.
This social cliché paints a picture of a reckless behavior—of overspending, unfaithfulness and an uncontrollable desire to turn back the clock of time. And all this is presumably fueled by a bubbling frustration the person feels underneath—because of dreams unmet, goals unrealized and life insignificant enough to leave a dent in the universe.
But all this begs the question: Just because something is a decades-old stereotype, does it make it true today? Does midlife foster more carelessness or thoughtfulness?
Let’s look under the hood, shall we?
Table of Contents
What is Midlife Crisis Exactly?
The most widespread definition of “midlife crisis” is:
“A transition of identity and self-confidence that can occur in middle-aged individuals, typically 45–64 years old. The phenomenon is described as a psychological crisis brought about by events that highlight a person’s growing age, inevitable mortality, and possibly shortcomings of accomplishments in life. This may produce feelings of depression, remorse, and anxiety, or the desire to achieve youthfulness or make drastic changes to their current lifestyle.”
First coined in an article by the Canadian psychoanalyst Elliott Jaques in 1965, the term has quickly become a mainstream explanation for anyone who “snaps” after they pass forty. “Must-be-the-midlife-crisis” adage makes it all easier for us to understand and label this transitional period as something which seems more of a catastrophe than a catharsis.
An interesting thing to note is that this stage in our lives is actually not experienced at the big four-oh point. It’s at a bit later. According to the research published on The Conversation, it manifests during different times for men and women. For the former group, it is between thirty-five and forty-five, and for the latter—it’s between forty-five and fifty-four. Other studies place lock-bottom around fifty for both genders.
Symptoms of a Midlife Crisis
As described in the common literature, the “typical” symptoms of midlife crisis are:
- Feelings as depression and disappointment
- Anger at oneself for not being as successful as the Joneses
- Nostalgia about the younger years
- Dissatisfaction with one’s life in general
- A sense of pressure that there is much you still want to do and shrinking timespan
- A heightened need for a change or “something different.”
- Doubts about your achievements and the choices you have made so far
- A desire for passion, intimacy and to feel wanted again
Simply put, you may feel progressively but somewhat unfoundedly unhappy. Life appears to be hollowed out of meaning.
It is not a sunny place, that’s for sure.
Why Is the Midlife Crisis Getting Such a Bad Reputation?
Going through the typical manifestations of a midlife crisis, it is easy to understand why it is not a time one should excitedly anticipate or cheer for.
On the top of the above-mentioned signs, there are deeper and darker waters running underneath your sense of unhappiness.
The period marks the beginning of the sunset of your life. It’s the stage where you start to notice more vividly the streaks of grey hair, the wrinkles, the sagging skin, or your feeling out of place amongst younger crowds. The realization of old age creeping slowly on you is positively not an occasion to sing “Hakuna Matata.”
So, in a sometimes-desperate attempt to summon back Youth, some may embark on, as shown in the movies, a rather reckless behavior—such as overspending, excessive working out, or a fling with the young hot gardener in a “Desperate Housewives”-style.
In this vain, remember also the character of Diane Lane in “Unfaithful” where she starts an affair with a sexy Oliver Martinez—out of boredom perhaps, being the wife of a well-off businessman, or because of something else maybe. Yes, you guessed it—it is called midlife crisis. Say no more. Ah, the stereotypes of the Hollywood movies!
Most importantly, however, midlife crisis came about to be associated with a dip in happiness, as described by the famed “U-shape” of Happiness. One of the first pieces of research supporting this idea is from 2008 by two economics professors—David Blanchflower and Andrew Oswald.
Using data from five hundred thousand people from the U.S. and Europe, they evidenced that the lowest point of subjective well-being is around the 46 mark. After this, it begins to increase. But it’s unclear what exactly causes this—there seem to be different explanations floating around.
The prevailing rationale seems to be that it’s due to “unmet expectations” —which are, naturally, accompanied by the gloomy feeling of depression and a sense that we have wasted our lives without achieving anything truly remarkable.
Therefore, looking in totality at the above, a rather joyless picture emerges—a period which feels more like the Dark Ages—to be dreaded rather than celebrated as the new chapter of one’s life.
But again—is it really all grey?
Why the Hype is Not True
The evidence from studies has been somewhat controversial on whether midlife crisis really exists.
Some research has shown that midlife transitional period does exist but not at a specific point in time. It’s more part of the ageing and maturing process which happens gradually during adulthood. It is more a hype about the hype, an expectation that creates a “reality,” which is far not as dramatic as we have been led to believe.
Other recent tests also chime in with a similar tone—two Canadian longitudinal studies found that, when accounting for variables as health, employment and martial status, our happiness tends to rise, not fall, during adulthood. That is, people in their 40s are generally more joyful and satisfied than people in their 20s or 30s.
A piece in Psychology Today magazine says:
“There is virtually no data to support the assertion that the midlife crisis is a universal experience. Those who conduct research in this area continue to wonder why this myth lingers when we keep failing to find evidence for it in our data.”
A U-shape of happiness may exist, but it doesn’t necessarily translate to a crisis.
And there is no proof that the experiences are universal to all people too.
Decades ago, by the time women hit their forties, they were considered to be well into their mature, older years even. They would marry in their twenties, have kids almost right away and twenty years later, they will be sending them to college and going through the empty-nest syndrome. Now, we live longer, we have kids later in life, often after thirty-five. The way our career and personal life trajectories unfold is very different.
So, science is not always right. Do not fall a victim to a self-fulfilling prophecy. Just because we are told to expect something dreadful, it doesn’t mean it will happen.
What Midlife “Crisis” is Really About
Although many may be embracing themselves for the dark times that are coming, it’s important not to develop tunnel-vision and to only focus on the bad.
Midlife transition is part of the natural ageing process that everyone goes through—it is about the physical changes to your body.
Apart from the outer shell, it may also change our inner landscapes—in a positive way, I believe.
Here are some of the benefits to the midlife transformation:
A great time to take stock or go through a life audit
You can reflect on what has worked, what has not.
Once you re-assess the past, you can have a better idea of your strengths and how to put them to work in the most efficient way in the future.
A chance to change course.
When you feel the imminence of old age and realise that time is limited, you learn to appreciate it more.
There is no deluding yourself that you have unlimited number of years left—so, it is a sort of “Now-or-Never” moment in your life.
Realize that there is no point to sweat over the petty stuff
You can see the bigger picture now and are able to figure out that some things are just not worth your energy, anger and time.
Therefore, you can really focus on achieving your goals with less distractions.
An opportunity to let go of the past and everything that affected you negatively
You have lived long enough now to fully recognize that the past is not a predictor of the future. Leave it where it belongs.
Therefore, midlife is also a time for a mental cleanse.
A chance to give yourself some proper self-care
This is more relevant for those with grown children. It is finally You time.
All the years you have been neglecting yourself to be a good mom, wife, housewife—it’s finally the time to give yourself some appreciation.
A chance to seek out new opportunities, to break the old habits and patterns and to make a lifestyle change
It is high time you start going to the gym as you have always wanted—one New Year’s resolution after another.
It is also the period to attempt quitting smoking, eating better or reading more. Whatever it is that you want to improve—use the midlife years as a “wake-up” call to do so.
An opportunity to ask yourself how to make your life count
Finally, according to the developmental psychologist Erik Erikson, between ages of 40 and 65, we start asking ourselves how to make your life count.
The answer, he advises, is something called “generativity”—which is simply a “concern for establishing and guiding for the next generation.” That is, what makes your life meaningful is to ensure that you care for, guide your kids into the future and raise them to become good human beings.
This is how you leave your mark after you are gone.
Why Midlife “Crisis” Can Actually Make You a Better Person
The midlife years do not have to feel like a stone around your neck. They are not about depression and mood swings, or about feeling stuck in a rut and having an existential crisis.
They are about re-assessment, reflection and the opportunity to become an improved version of yourself.
Here are some ways in which this period can also make you a better person in the process:
1. Your Mental Health Improves
Faced with the transience of your existence, you realize that some things are not worth stressing about. You become calmer and wiser, learn to accept the things you can not change.
In fact, studies have shown that, as we age, responsiveness to regret decreases. Therefore, our “emotional health” improves.
2. You Have Stronger Relationships
You become nicer with people as a result too—you let go of old grudges, are willing to overlook small disagreements. You don’t get hinged on the trivial stuff—you start looking at the bigger picture.
In fact, you may become more appreciative of your relationships and spend more time with those who matter in your life.
3. You Are More Motivated
As you have gone through some ups and downs, trials and errors in the past years, you can become more focused, driven and motivated.
You can craft new goals, use your lessons learned and find better ways of going after what you want.
4. You Take Better Care of Yourself—Both Physically and Mentally
You will seek balance, will stray away from extreme emotions and may adopt a more philosophical way of life—more in line with the Eastern philosophy of focusing on the Now.
5. You Feel More Connected with Others
As you think more about leaving a mark on Earth and doing something meaningful, you may look for ways to make the world a better place. You will want to have a positive legacy, so you may start helping others more, donate to charity or volunteer.
You will come to realize that the good life is more about connectedness and less about social competition.
6. You’re More Grateful
In this vein, you also start appreciating more what you have—i.e. there is a spike in gratitude as we age, studies tell us.
You may shift focus from career to personal relationships and start nurturing them more. You will spend more time with family and friends and re-kindle your bonds.
7. You’re More Positive
Finally, if you chose to see the positive—what you have achieved, what you have in your life, and feel grateful, you will adopt a more optimistic outlook too.
You will be proud of our life unfolding the way it has, rather than feeling miserable that it has not taken another direction.
Summing It All Up
In the end, there are few take-aways for all who going through their midlife years.
Remember that it is more about an opportunity for a re-assessment, improving your life and relationships, not about going haywire in your behavior.
We should, in fact, stop calling this period “crisis”—as it is really not. It is more of midlife chances to finally summon the courage to become the person we are meant to be.
It is also about starting to write a new chapter of your book, really. Nothing scary about this—similar to the other chapters, there will be stories of ups and downs, of surprises awaiting around the corner, of laughs and cries. It is called life.
Rather than being scared, you can anticipate it with excitement—it is finally the time to “put your ducks in order” and focus on what truly matters to you.
The wife of my cousin gave me a good piece of advice few years ago:
“I was down for while—it felt like I was nearing my life’s finish line. My son was grown up, I had a decent career, good marriage. I hit a plateau. It felt like there was nothing exciting around the corner. Until you learn to let go and shift your priorities. Now I started doing the things I’ve postponed for years.
In your thirties, you have different priorities than your twenties, same when you look at your forties and fifties compared to a decade ago. It can not be the same and this is a good thing. Imagine staying up all night clubbing and drinking all night when you are forty-five. It doesn’t suit you.”
Listening to this, a question popped in my mind: But where is the crisis in this, really?
More Resources About Midlife Crisis
- How to Survive a Midlife Crisis in Men (the Definitive Guide)
- How to Start Over and Reboot Your Life When It Seems Too Late
- Do You Have to Give Everything Up to Get a Fresh Start?
- Why It’s Never Too Late to Change Your Life and Live Differently
- Feeling Like It Might Be Too Late To Pursue Your Dreams? Think Again
Featured photo credit: Christian Gertenbach via unsplash.com
|||^||Wikipedia: Midlife Crisis|
|||^||The Conversation: Hard evidence: is the midlife crisis real?|
|||^||Live About: What Are the Causes of a Midlife Crisis?|
|||^||David Blanchflower and Andrew Oswald: Is well-being U-shaped over the life cycle?|
|||^||Gail Sheehy: Passages: Predictable Crises of Adult Life|
|||^||Shek, D. T. L. (1996): Midlife crisis in Chinese men and women.|
|||^||Dev Psychol. : Up, not down: The age curve in happiness from early adulthood to midlife in two longitudinal studies.|
|||^||Psychology Today: Worried About a Midlife Crisis? Don’t. There’s No Such Thing|
|||^||Science: Don’t look back in anger! Responsiveness to missed chances in successful and nonsuccessful aging.|
|||^||The Atlantic: The Real Roots of Midlife Crisis|