How to embrace a midlife crisis, explained by a psychologist


There are many good reasons for feeling a little stress and melancholia when you reach life’s halfway point. Before, you might have felt you were on an upward curve – growing physically and mentally stronger with age, learning and earning more. But now, the end is nearer than the start and you might sense the beginnings of a slow descent toward decline and ultimate decrepitude.

Layered upon that unsettling shift in perspective, for many there are some pressing practicalities – the demands of children, more responsibility at work, and perhaps caring for ageing parents too. No wonder that many middle-aged people are said to experience a ‘mid-life crisis’ – a term coined by the Canadian psychoanalyst Elliott Jaques, first at a scholarly conference presentation in London 1957 then later, in print, in his 1965 book Death and the Midlife Crisis.

Jaques’ term caught on, thanks in part to the mega-selling Passages: Predictable Crises of Adult Life by US journalist Gail Sheehy, published in 1976, which featured her interviews with people in their late 30s and early 40s, many of whom described being in turmoil. To this day, jokes abound of what people will do to alleviate their age-acquired angst: 40-something men buying themselves a sports car or middle-aged women leaving their marriage to go backpacking around the world. According to a study carried out in 2004, between 10 and 20 per cent people report experiencing a mid-life. crisis Yet, the fact is, the very notion of a mid-life crisis is more of a cultural invention than it is a psychological reality.

Each stage of life comes with its own challenges and, anecdotes aside, there’s little objective evidence for midlife being a time of particular crisis. Consider a study from 2010 led by the University of Notre Dame that drew on two huge long-running surveys of people’s life satisfaction, one conducted in Germany involving about 40,000 people, the other conducted in Britain since 1991 and involving over 20,000 people.

Both surveys showed that life satisfaction remains pretty constant through life, until old age. In fact, the British survey showed some evidence for modest declines in life satisfaction in early adulthood, but with a positive rebound from midlife onwards, until much later in life.

There are other reasons to feel positive about reaching the midlife point. Whereas younger adults are having to find their way and prove their worth at work, the chances are that if you’re middle-aged, your own professional situation is more settled. Research shows that by mid-life, people are able to find more intrinsic motivations for their work – the pleasure and meaning of it – rather than extrinsic, which is more about pay and promotion.

And while so-called ‘fluid intelligence’ (mental ability) can start to decline as early as our twenties, ‘crystallised intelligence’ – your vocab and general knowledge – continues to grow through life and is likely higher than it’s ever been. Comprehension and arithmetic too tend to be at their peak in mid-life or even later. Perhaps unsurprisingly, there is also some evidence that wisdom continues to increase into midlife and beyond.

Another reason for viewing midlife with optimism comes from the research on the personality changes that typically take place through a person’s lifespan. Thanks to a spate of long-term studies that have assessed the same groups of people over many decades, we know that most of us can expect to grow more emotionally stable with age, more conscientious and friendly, at least into midlife and sometimes later.

Even when it comes to physical challenges and midlife, there’s a positive story to tell. You’ve probably noticed the abundance of men of a certain age donning their Lycra and heading off for a day of fun on the mountain trails, leading to the pejorative Mamil acronym – “middle aged men in Lycra” (of course plenty of women enjoy cycling and other sports too).

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In defiance of those who mock, these people are having fun and, for those who wish to, they can hold their own in competition. In fact, there has been a noticeable increase in people over 40 competing in endurance sports (in the research literature, they’re known more respectfully as ‘master athletes’) – for instance, male ‘master runners’ have made up more than half the men completing recent New York marathons.

There are likely multiple reasons for this demographic shift in sports, some of it no doubt due to improvements in health care and awareness leading to better, lasting functional fitness through life. On the psychological side, some intriguing research from the University of Oregon found that people’s competitiveness increased with age before peaking at around age 50.

So, looking at the entire picture, far from middle-aged people being over the hill and in a state of crisis, they’re often wiser, happier and more driven than they’ve ever been before. As with many things in life, much of it comes down to perspective – by focusing on the positives, you might find there’s some truth to another popular trope, and that life really does begin at 40.

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