If you’ve ever considered buying a red sports car or quit your job to follow your muse, if you’ve ever related to Lester Burnham in American Beauty, there’s some good news. Midlife crisis is not inevitable, and reaching 45 is not the first step in a slow, agonizing decline. After interviewing more than 400 people, I found that midlife, while complicated, is, for many if not most people, the peak of their lives.
Here are five ways we misunderstand midlife.
1. It’s time for my midlife crisis. In fact, midlife crisis is rare. The term “midlife crisis” was coined by a Canadian psychoanalyst named Elliott Jaques, based on his analysis of artistic “geniuses” as well as patients in his practice who felt an existential dread that there was not enough time in their lives to achieve their dreams. Gail Sheehy’s book Passages turned the midlife crisis into a cultural phenomenon, symbolized by the red sports car, quitting your job or leaving your marriage. But over the past 20 years, researchers have tried to find evidence of a widespread midlife crisis — and failed. They believe only 10 percent of the population suffers such a crisis. What most people refer to as a “midlife crisis” is really a crisis or setback that occurs in midlife, such as losing a spouse, a parent, a job, or experiencing a health scare. Most people recover from these setbacks.
2. My midlife doldrums will last forever. While midlife crisis is rare, midlifeennui is nearly universal. Andrew Oswald at the University of Warwick and other researchers have detected a “U-shaped” happiness curve that seems to afflict people across the globe. (The low point in the U.S. is the mid-40s.) However, almost inevitably you become cheerier in your 50s and continue to grow happier through your 70s. Why? One theory is people reconcile themselves to the fact that they will not be CEO or a Supreme Court justice and begin to appreciate their lives — and the people in their lives. Also, brain studies show that your brain simply becomes happier after 50, as it ignores unhappy news and focuses on the positive. Read more