Do a Google search for “midlife” and you will get lots of hits for “midlife crisis”. Really? Is that all midlife is about?
In our modern western culture it would seem that “midlife” and “crisis” have to go together. Or do they?
Barbara Hagerty is a successful, 50-something journalist and long-time contributor to National Public Radio in the USA. In 2012, at age 53, she suffered a heart attack just after posting a response to an angry listener’s email about her most recent report – a feedback routine she always found stressful.
That same night, as she recovered in a hospital bed, her 91-year-old father died. In the aftermath of this double-whammy of midlife events, she took leave from her job at NPR to research and write a book about midlife, called “Life Reimagined – the science, art and opportunity of midlife”. The result of a two-year investigation into this important period of life, it’s a fascinating and mostly reassuring read due to some of the conclusions she has reached, including:
“As a result, I have come to believe that the forties, fifties and sixties are the least understood and, in some ways, most critical phase of life… midlife is a bustling hub where the decisions you make today largely determine the rest of your journey on this planet.”
Midlife Crisis is largely a myth
According to Hagerty: “Midlife has gotten a bad rap. It has suffered guilt by association … linked inextricably to crisis.”
This association began with a 1965 scientific publication by Canadian psychoanalyst Elliott Jacques titled “Death and the Mid-Life Crisis”. But it blossomed in the 1970’s with books like Passages by Gail Sheehy and became established in the popular culture through movies and other media. Popular understanding became that most people would suffer through the “forlorn forties” or “resigned fifties”, as Sheehy described them.
But in fact, reports Hagerty, there is little hard evidence for the midlife crisis. It is now estimated that less than 10% of middle-aged people suffer a true midlife crisis, defined as a deep existential concern about aging, impending death and lost opportunities. In fact, she claims, researchers say that midlife is about renewal, not crisis for most people.
This is not to say that most midlifers are a happy bunch. Hagerty confirms the U-shaped pattern to life’s happiness levels, which I wrote about previously – with the trough occurring in the forties and early fifties.
But as researchers looked for the midlife crisis what they found when they dug deeper into people’s responses was that what people may have first identified as a midlife crisis was just dealing with the crap life can throw at you, i.e. the ‘yeah I had a midlife crisis, I lost my job at 45’ type of response. But for most people, those sorts of externalities do not result in the internal existential crisis that is implied by the term midlife crisis.
Still, the cumulative build up of life’s setbacks can certainly have a dampening impact on one’s outlook. And by middle age, you are likely to have accumulated a number of those body blows. Thus, the malaise that is so common at this time of life.
How to avoid a midlife crisis
I won’t try to summarize a 350+ page book in 700 words, but there are three themes Haggerty says came up often in her research of those who have successfully navigated the troubled midlife waters, that I’d like to highlight:
1. “Engage with verve” into all the important parts of your life. “Choose where to invest your energy, and do so intentionally, because the clearest path to a robust midlife is purposeful engagement.”
2. “Choose purpose over happiness” – “researchers have concluded that pursuing happiness can backfire but pursuing eudaimonia rarely fails, (i.e.) …pursuing long-term goals that give meaning to life rather than short-term happiness that delivers a jolt of dopamine.”
3. “Your thinking is your experience” – Attitude, or how you react to life’s ups and downs “can shape how you experience the world.” This point is also underlined in the book “The Happiness Equation” which I recommended here.
There is much more to these themes, and the rest of Haggerty’s book, so I will revisit it in the future. In the meantime, if you would like to read it for yourself, you can get it by clicking on the image below. By buying through this, or any other links on this site, you will send a small donation to keep this site going, at no additional cost to you. Thanks!