Are mid life crises real things, or an excuse we give ourselves to act recklessly and make big life shifts? How about quarter life crises? The article, “The Real Roots of Midlife Crisis,” which first appeared in the December 2014 issue of The Atlantic answered my questions:
“Midlife crisis begins in your 40s, when you look at life and think, ‘Is this all?’ And then ends about 10 years later, when you look at your life again and think, ‘Actually, this is pretty good.’” Donald Richie
I have a theory about why people experience mid- and now quarter life crises, and my theory had me feeling good about my prospects and yours if you are following Life in Focus philosophy. Thus, I wasn’t too concerned about experiencing any major issues simply because I was approaching 40… maybe I was wrong.
It’s coming and you can’t do anything about it!
According to The Atlantic article studies indicate that when you factor for life events (e.g. wealth, family, marital status employment…) research repeatedly shows an aged-based U-curve for satisfaction. Basically, there is a downward trend in satisfaction for most people between the ages of 39-57. This implies (but doesn’t prove) that being unhappy in the middle of your life is inevitable for most of us!!!!
What? Does that mean that in two years I am doomed to enter a stage where despite anything I might do, I will be generally dissatisfied or worse, down right unhappy with my life?
Not me! No sir-ee!
What I do believe, as the author puts it, is that “the evidence points to this: being satisfied is perfectly possible in midlife, but for a great many of us it is harder.” I also believe that there are ways to shorten or minimize that dissatisfaction, but before I get there, let me summarize some of the hypotheses shared in the article about why the U-curve exists.
- The reason satisfaction increases in later years is that people invest in things that are more meaningful and important, and derive greater benefits from this investment.
- The reason younger people are more unhappy and older people are less so is that the former’s expectations are too high, leading to disappointment in life, while the latter lower and lower their expectations, and eventually get to a place where they remain happily surprised by life’s outcomes.
- The shape of the U-curve is due to unmet aspirations that are painfully felt during midlife, but abandoned in later years, leaving us with less regret in old age.
In my humble opinion:
I actually agree with much of the above stated hypotheses, and I think they can work together, but I would put it differently.
We lose sight of who we are
Part of the reason people grow more dissatisfied in the middle of their life is that they lose track of who they are and what matters. Early on in our lives we dream away about the possibilities that adulthood holds, but as we pursue these possibilities we get bogged down in the details of life. There comes a point in the middle of adulthood where we function on autopilot, but have potentially lost sight of where we are going, why we are headed there and whether this is what we want at all (I’m going to write more about this later in the week, but if I go off on this tangent today you might get an essay rather than a post).
At some point this lack of insight catches up with us, and we begin to experience what we call a midlife crisis. Some see it in their mid-life, but more and more it’s cropping up earlier – thus the quarter-life crisis.
Then we get to know ourselves
There’s resurgence in satisfaction when people take the time to be more self aware and evaluate their lives, needs, and priorities. Sometimes that evaluation takes the form of odd choices: the stereotypical red sports car, the illicit love affair, a whole new personal image, but as I pointed out last week just trying to invent a new you, or purchasing a bunch of new things really doesn’t work to create happiness or satisfaction.
When we can properly apply those insights about who we are, then we start making choices that have more value and purpose.
I don’t think we lower our expectations as we get older, but we do become more self-aware. We use that awareness to hone in on what truly holds value. This allows us to appear more realistic and maybe settled. But really it’s that we no longer miss what seemed like “lost opportunities” because we can see that they weren’t right for us.
“So maybe it’s not a myth, maybe it is just part of life, but I don’t think it has to last a decade or result in re-invented lives, damaging love- affairs or persistent misery.”
Not so depressing anymore:
When I look at it in that way I don’t find the notion of a midlife crisis to be so depressing anymore. The truth is, in many ways, life is less fun right now than it was 8 years ago before kids and careers really took off. My spouse and I might argue more, because we have less patience at this point. We have less patience because having children, demanding jobs, and little time can wear on us. There is less time to just be and have fun and take advantage of all the great opportunities life has to offer. However, my life is far more satisfying. The kids are energy and financial leaches, but they are also amazingly funny and full of wonderment and potential. We have less time, but we are also far more in tune with our own needs. We try not to waste the little time we do have on goals and relationships that don’t contribute to overall satisfaction. We argue more, but we know what we want out of our relationship and we look at the bigger picture – the one that hopefully goes with death doing us part in 50 years.
I can’t account for how my husband gets there, he is one stubborn man, who talks about this kind of stuff as “psychobabble”. In my case and for many of my clients the secret to thwarting a midlife crisis is learning how to stay in touch with our needs, values and wants, and we build goals that bring those needs into our daily lives.
Months ago when I was thinking about this post I was going to title it “The Myth of the Midlife Crisis”, then The Atlantic article came along and changed my thinking a bit. So maybe it’s not a myth, maybe it is just part of life, but I don’t think it has to last a decade or result in re-invented lives, damaging love- affairs or persistent misery. I know that there are ways to address, maybe even prevent it and I’m glad I have created a roadmap to navigating it should it rear its ugly head in the next couple of years.
Get the Focus Map + it’s NEW video tutorial by yours truly – it’s a great tool to uncover what’s right for you and maybe, just maybe you can tap in to what you need now and avoid that nasty mid/quarterlife crisis. Click on the image to download the map!
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