Midlife crisis. We hardly even question the term any more. A staple of our pop culture, the midlife crisis appears in movies, TV sitcoms, news stories, commentaries and magazine ads for red sports cars. The grown-up version of teenage "storm and stress," the midlife crisis is a catch-all term that captures any feelings that 40-somethings have of disappointment, restlessness and the sense of a forever-departed youth.
Given the ubiquitous nature of the midlife crisis notion, it might surprise you to learn that, as far as psychology is concerned, it's a myth. Scientific research shows that most of us go through our middle years without so much as a blip on our psychological radar screens. Surveys, interview studies, personality testing and mental health screening data fail to reveal that there's something about the midlife years that leads people inevitably to emotional turmoil.
I began conducting research on this topic in the 1980s, shortly after Gail Sheehy's publication of her pop book called "Passages: Predictable Crises of Adult Life." Virtually none of the nearly 100 midlife adults I interviewed for my book, "The Me I Know," felt that the concept described them or the people they knew. Even those in their 40s, considered the prime age for the midlife crisis, showed no signs of suffering from the kind of existential angst we associate with this period of life. It's not as though they were evading the truth. My in-depth interviews turned up a number of other concerns that they were having in their lives. As my research team and I probed these concerns, we found that most revolved around their desires to be close to their families, successful at work, honest in their dealings with other people, and regarded positively by the people in their communities. My respondents rarely even gave specific thought to their age when we asked them questions about their sense of identity.
More recently, in my book "The Search for Fulfillment", I found that out of the nearly 200 adults I followed up from college through the late 50s, only one particular subgroup seemed most likely to experience midlife malaise. These were people I considered to be on the "Downward Slope" route of development, one of five life paths my analyses uncovered. However, even these unhappy 50-somethings wouldn't have been considered candidates for the midlife crisis. They'd made a series of poor decisions throughout their adult lives that cost them relationships, career, and general well-being. Their unhappiness characterized them throughout their adult lives, not just in the decade of their 40s.
A large-scale survey of 3,000 midlife adults in the 1990s conducted by Cornell sociologist Elaine Wethington showed that the majority of midlife adults did not report that they experienced a crisis. The twist on this study was that of the small percentage who said they did have a "midlife crisis," the age of this "midlife" event ranged from as young as 30 to as old as 65.
For the midlife crisis idea to have validity, it should be linked to true midlife, or at least the mid-40s (which is when it's "supposed" to happen). It should also be a true crisis. As originally devised (in a thoughtful, philosophical 1965 paper by the psychoanalyst Elliot Jaques), the midlife crisis was supposed to occur when the midlife adult starts to come to grips with mortality, realizing that he or she won't be able to fulfill all the dreams of youth. As the concept started to evolve, it became associated with a host of other midlife problems, such as relationship woes, trouble with adolescent kids, career despair and -- most notably -- the irrepressible need to buy a red sports car.
Nearly 40 years later, the midlife crisis is ready for its own midlife crisis. In fact, it's about time for it to bite the dust. To do that, we need simply to expunge the word from all of our vocabularies. The problem is that people like it too much. You can sweep a lot of bad behavior under the midlife crisis carpet and never get blamed for any of it. Like Lester Burnham, the main character in "American Beauty," you can fall in love with the cheerleader next door, sell your beige minivan for a red (what else) sports car and in general act like a 16- (or maybe 12-) year-old boy. Of course, Lester didn't exactly get away with his bad behavior, but millions of theatergoers, especially men, found plenty to sympathize with until his revenge-bent wife finally caught up with him.
For those people whose depression at midlife is real, however, the midlife crisis notion creates different sets of difficulties. If they attribute their unhappiness to a passing phase of life, they may fail to seek vital mental health interventions. Depression, no matter what your age, is a treatable condition. Similarly, people with relationship problems, career difficulties and issues with children respond well to professional therapy.
If you feel convinced that you're having a midlife crisis, don't be misled by what you've been told in the popular media. Midlife can be a rewarding and enjoyable period of life, especially once you separate this reality from the myth.
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