THE BLOG
10/19/2012 02:14 pm ET Updated Dec 19, 2012

Why Is Midlife Such a Downer?

Gail Sheehy, author of Passages, made getting older seem a "bit of all right." She told us that "50 is now what 40 used to be. 60 is what 50 used to be. And healthy, educated people aren't feeling middle-aged until they're into their 60's." As a therapist, I talk to a lot of midlife people from around the world. Many of them sure seem depressed. Sure, people have all kinds of problems in life and stress levels are going up for everyone. But there seems to be something disturbing about what men and women over 40 are experiencing these days. What's going on?

Using data on two million people from 80 nations, researchers from the University of Warwick and Dartmouth College in the U.S. have found an extraordinarily consistent international pattern in depression and happiness levels that leaves us most miserable in middle age. Researchers discovered that "for both men and women, the probability of depression peaks around 44 years of age." In the U.S. they found a significant difference between men and women with unhappiness, reaching a peak at around 40 years of age for women and 50 years of age for men.

We often think of Western, industrial countries as rich in the things that money can buy, but poor in providing joy and happiness. But this midlife phenomenon seems to be true for people everywhere. Countries that show this pattern include the following: Albania, Australia, Costa Rica, Israel, Mexico, Russia, South Africa, United Kingdom, United States, Uzbekistan, Zimbabwe and 68 other countries.

Looking Back on My Own Midlife Experience

I think of my own life in my 40's and 50's as being pretty stressful. It didn't occur to me that everyone else in the world was going through the same things. It just seemed that the more I worked, the more behind I got. My children were going through adolescence and my marriage was shaky. My health that had always seemed, well... I never thought about my health because it was always good. But now I was getting sick more often and it seemed to take longer to recover.

I was irritable and angry a lot, though I never would have considered myself depressed. "Of course I'm angry," I would shout to no one in particular. "Who wouldn't be angry if they had to put up with what I have to put up with?" As a writer, I use myself as a marker of what's going on in the world. When I see something happening to me, to my friends, to my clients, I want to know how widespread the problem might be. "This could be my next book."

For me, there's nothing that lifts my spirits like a project that I can get my teeth into, even if the topic is depression and aggression. I began gathering information from thousands of men and the women who love them. I developed a quiz to help assess what I came to call, "The Irritable Male Syndrome" and put it online at www.IMSquiz.com. Since then, more than 60,000 men and women have taken the quiz. Although I recognized that both midlife men and women were becoming more depressed, I believed that men often express their depression through symptoms like irritability, boredom, anger and blame. Women often express their depression through tears and sadness.

My book, Irritable Male Syndrome: Understanding the 4 Key Causes of Depression and Aggression was released in 2004. I said that Irritable Male Syndrome is "a state of hypersensitivity, anxiety, frustration and anger that occurs in males and is associated with biochemical changes, hormonal fluctuations, stress, and loss of male identity." Although it is not limited to midlife, this seems to be the most common time of life when men go through this downturn.

The new research on depression helped me understand why there was so much conflict between men and women in the U.S. Women's midlife downturn begins to reverse itself when she hits 40. For men, they are still feeling irritable, angry, and depressed until they hit 50. If you've been in a relationship where you're feeling good again and your man is feeling mean and angry, you know how bad you can feel. If you're a man who feels irritable and angry living with a woman who is happy and cheerful, you know how frustrating that can be. I remember thinking "why is she so happy, when I'm so miserable?"

Hang In There: Good Times Are on the Way

Scientists have only recently begun to tackle middle age issues with the same focus they have devoted to other life stages. The changes of puberty and adolescence have been well documented, in part because the changes are so evident -- even on an individual level. However, only through studying large numbers of people, as this study did, do the dramatic patterns of midlife appear. Charting happiness shows a "U-shaped curve" with relative highs at the beginning of life (the joys of youth) and post-midlife (the golden years), but with a very clear low period during middle age.

The research was aimed at identifying unhappiness patterns but it was not structured to pinpoint causes, leaving researchers to hypothesize why midlife is so darn tough. One of theories is that middle age begins with the realization that one won't achieve all of one's aspirations and then ends after "seeing their fellow middle-aged peers begin to die," therefore kicking off a period where they value their own remaining years and embrace life once more. If true, this would explain why people who express gratitude and people who are goal-oriented generally record higher happiness levels.

Another contributing cause could be the large number of life changes that can happen during this period. In the span of just a decade individuals can experience empty nest, elder care/loss of parent, divorce/marital issues, forced job change, financial pressure, menopause/andropause and possibly serious illness. This is also the time that looking in the mirror can highlight the effects that the passage of time has had on our appearance. We might have the psychological strength to handle one or two of these but the cumulative effect of too many of them might simply be too much.

The good news, and this was true across almost all 80 countries in the study, is that if you make it to aged 70 and are still physically fit, you are on average as "happy and mentally healthy as a 20-year old." I know if you're in the midst of a midlife meltdown its small comfort to have someone tell you to hang in there until you're 70. But it can help to recognize, even in the middle of your down period, there's nothing wrong with you or your mate. You're just at the bottom of the U and it will be uphill from here.