That's how a man in his 50s described his life to me not long ago: "It's my long slide home." He was feeling morose, anticipating the long holiday period from Thanksgiving through the New Year and what he knew it would arouse in him. I often see the "holiday blues" strike people during this time of multiple holidays (Hanukkah and Christmas; as well as Ashurah, Bodhi Day, and Kwanzaa). The tendency to reflect and take stock of one's life often triggers sadness, regret, or depression -- especially during midlife.
For example, this time of year can intensify feelings of losses you've experienced as well as fears about change, in general. In a previous post I described how you can become frozen into a mindset and perspective that your life is fixed and will spiral downward from your middle years onward. Such a mentality restricts your vision. You can't see that it's possible -- and necessary -- to continue evolving your life, while reframing your emotional attitudes about the life changes that will continue to occur. I've always liked a line from one of Norman Mailer's novels, "It is a law of life... that one must grow, or else pay more for remaining the same."
Many of 78 million baby boomers, now in the thick of midlife, are vulnerable to feeling demoralized about their lives. For some it's the classic "midlife crisis." But for many, it's more of a chronic, low-grade fever, reflecting a range of things: Loss of intimacy with their partner, emotionally, sexually and intellectually. Regrets about what they didn't do well enough in their parenting of their children, who are now launched into their own adult lives... and in an uncertain world. Unfulfilled creative longings for their careers or for contributing to something more meaningful. A career that's flatlined, or worse -- lost altogether. Physical changes or limitations that accrue. The desire for deeper friendships as they feel increasingly sporadic and elusive.
On top of all that are the anxieties about what lies down the road for yourself and your children in this world of economic instability, political polarization, the specter of terrorism, and general unpredictability on all fronts of life. It can be hard trying to maintain sanity (assuming you know what that even looks like) while dealing with all this. It can make you wonder what the point of it all is, as a midlife woman said to me: "It's been hitting home lately that I'm going to die, eventually, and all of a sudden nothing has any meaning, anymore."
Of course, there are people whose emotional conflicts predate midlife, or for whom midlife issues trigger old conflicts that now erupt in the form of depression, anxiety and other symptoms. But most don't fall in that category. For the majority, their suffering is a product of having arrived at midlife in our culture with socially conditioned attitudes about loss and change; a mentality that doesn't allow for envisioning new possibilities within the reality that now exists. Without that vision, there's no hope. And without hope you can't learn what actions will support positive growth in your life from this point forward.
That's especially ironic, because people are living longer, with extended health and the potential for productive, energized lives. What we call "midlife" is really an outmoded term that reflects an earlier era in which you could expect to die in your 60s. But the mature adult years now cover several decades in people's minds. For example, recent surveys find that about 80 percent think "old age" doesn't begin until around 85.
So: Here are a few evidence-based ideas that can help catapult you out of the risk of suffering from midlife blues during this holiday period -- or any other time.
Continue Your Personal "Evolution"
Take note of the evidence that you can -- and should -- continue to evolve within your lifetime, especially during the so-called middle years. By then, you've accrued enough life experience to know what's worth going after, and what's worth letting go of. In a previous post I pointed out that your capacities for positive development -- emotionally, intellectually, creatively, spiritually, physically, and in your relationships -- are actually heightened, but you have to know how to use them. One example: Research finds that the brains of older people are not slower but rather wiser than young brains. That is, older adults in the study achieved at least an equivalent level of performance, based on that enhanced capacity.
Revise the Meaning of Loss and Change
What you probably call "loss" is the conventional emotional experience of change, transition and the overall impermanence of life. It reflects your desire to stay attached to and hold onto something that's ended or evolved in a different direction. It may be a relationship, your growing child, your physical state or some experience you once "had."
It can be hard to see or open yourself to the other side of that coin: that every "loss" contains a new experience to learn from and do something with. That's your karma in action. For example, if you accept that your son or daughter is no longer a young child, that opens the door to a new challenge: building a different kind of relationship as he or she grows and matures. You might not embrace that side of the coin if you're fixed on the fear and pain of letting go of what you've "lost." The key is to fully absorb your emotional experience of whatever's changing or evolving -- including sadness or regret. But at the same time embrace and feel gratitude for what now exists in the life you have, at this moment in time. This shift of perspective can be helpful to you if you've suffered a career loss or downturn, as well.
Build A Sustainable Relationship
Studies of couples who are able to maintain a highly positive, energized connection for the long term find that they learn to "forget" themselves and become more focused on serving the relationship itself. By "forget" yourself I'm referring to conscious actions that serve and support the relationship between the two of you, not just your own needs. That is, think of your relationship as a third entity, with a life of its own.
A woman in a 20-year marriage illustrated the difference when she said to her husband during a couples therapy session in my office, "I still love you, but I hate our relationship." Psychological and social conditioning within our culture teaches us to relate to intimate partners as commodities, and therefore engage with them in transactional, mercantile terms: I give in order to get. I "invest" in the relationship to receive a "return." Relationships have become another part of a commercialized, consumer-orientation approach to life.
At midlife, though, you have a greater opportunity to break through this mentality and behavior. One reason is that you've hopefully learned from some negative experiences in your relationship. Most people have some along the way. Also, it helps to note that research has found that couples who are pretty materialistic have unhappier marriages than couples who don't care as much about possessions. The effect holds true across all levels of income. And a more materialistic orientation goes hand-in-hand with the commercialized, commodity orientation to one's partner. That's a good prescription for becoming unhappy roommates, at best.
Serve Something Greater Than Yourself
It's almost a cliché to engage in volunteer activity around holiday time -- and then forget about it the rest of the year. But providing service to some problem -- through your time, abilities and efforts -- can generate renewed vitality and life purpose during midlife. It can mitigate feelings of inner emptiness or absence of real human connection. It stimulates more proactive growth regarding your values and life. Service to some issue or purpose larger than yourself at midlife often triggers a strong yearning and action to create more positive, authentic connections in your life. It can awaken you to the reality that beneath surface differences, we're all one; all organs of the same body, so to speak.
When you engage others who have it worse off than yourself, it often leads to a healthier perspective about your own life dilemmas or disappointments. That shift of consciousness increases your flexibility in the face of ongoing life changes, and contributes to your overall psychological health and resilience during the midlife years.
Douglas LaBier, Ph.D., a business psychologist and psychotherapist, is director of the Center for Progressive Development in Washington, D.C. You may contact him at dlabier@CenterProgressive.org. To learn more about him, click here.