Tag Archives: mid-life crisis

Are Mid-life Crises For Real?

This just in: mid-life crises aren’t for real.

In a fascinating post on the Scientific American website, Jesse Bering explores the history and mythology of the proverbial mid-life crisis. He notes that despite our commonly held assumption that middle age brings with it a full on melt-down replete with new girlfriend, new hair style and the requisite red corvette, mid-life crises aren’t borne out empirically.

Indeed, epidemiological studies reveal that midlife is no more or less likely to be associated with career disillusionment, divorce, anxiety, alcoholism, depression or suicide than any other life stage; in fact, the incidence rates of many of these problems peak at other periods of the lifespan.

So why, then, do we cling to the concept of a midlife crisis? According to Israeli psychologist Carlo Strenger of Tel Aviv University, it’s because most common notions of what mid-life is supposed to be like are stuck in the past. They were constructed when life-expectancy was lower, people’s health – especially in later years – was much worse, and there was less emphasis on education and self-awareness.

“People are so used to thinking of mid-life as basically a period of loss that it often does become a self-fulfilling prophecy,” he said. ‘But some people, you really see that they begin to blossom, they begin to be more fruitful. They do things on a larger scale.”

In other words, now that we are living longer, middle age has become a time of reflection, growth and optimism rather than one of stagnation and despair. According to a recent survey carried out in the U.K. by Experian Credit Expert, some 85% of 40-59 year olds are giving themselves a second chance at achieving their ambitions and desires – from changing career or learning new skills to seeing the world.

And these trends hold regardless of gender. While men have long been the standard bearers for mid-life crises, this, too, is apparently over-stated. According to Margie Lachman, a psychologist at Brandeis University who headed up the largest such study in the United States, only 10 to 12 percent of men have anything approaching a crisis.

Interestingly (to me), because middle age is often a period defined by close relationships with people both older and younger than oneself (i.e. parents and children),  people tend to focus on making positive contributions to society through interactions with people of significantly different ages. Such interactions include formal and informal mentee/mentor relationships, stratified workplace relations and cross-generation family dynamics.

In that vein, I was struck this morning by an article about three highly successful, middle-aged executives who jumped ship from their respective companies in corporate America to work for a non-profit that leverages technology to solve development problems in the third world.  As I go about looking for a job at 45, I find that I, too, am drawn to organizations that will allow me to give back and help shape other people’s voices, rather than just honing my own.

Which doesn’t mean that there aren’t any mid-life trends out there. Here in the U.K., at least, middle-aged men seem to be trading in their Corvettes for cycles. (Goodness knows it’s true in our household.) Women, for their part, are looking inward: finding meaning in things like yoga, mindfulness and home.

All of which is to be welcomed. Lord knows there are enough people losing it right now around the world on a daily basis. It’s reassuring to know that some of us are managing to keep our sh#@ together.

Onward.

 

Image: Standing at the Gates of Hell by country_boy_shane via Flickr under a Creative Commons license.

 

 

Friday Pix: Recommended Reading For The Weekend

Every Friday I point you to some recommended reading around the blogosphere:

1. As someone who’s been pondering middle age quite a bit lately (here and here), I was quite taken with this post by Raina Kelley at Newsweek where she lays out some mid-life crisis rules to live by. (Note to self: No naked skyping!)

2. If you’re a mom, a wife or both, be sure to check out this CafeMom quiz that lets you rank yourself as a parent and a spouse. (Hat tip: Motherlode)

3. I laughed out loud at his essay in McSweeneys where the author writes from the perspective of life as a comic sans font. Hilarious! (Hat tip: Writer Abroad) Also in McSweeneys, Eloise (of story book fame) turns 23. (Hat tip: Communicatrix)

4. Writers will wince in recognition at this arch  blog by a literary agent entitled SlushPileHell, where the agent lists – and then disses – the kinds of claims authors make in their cover letters. Ouch! (Hat tip: Lisa Romeo Writes)

5. A new (to me) blog on creativity which a thoughtful reader pointed me towards: Strangling My Muse.

6. Finally, I really enjoyed this essay in the Brown Alumni Monthly by Jamie Metzl on the perils of wikipedia fame.

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Tips For Adulthood: Five Reasons To Be Optimistic About Middle Age

Every Wednesday I offer tips for adulthood.

This week’s list is inspired by a barrage of recent scientific studies offering good news about middle age.

Middle age has long been conceptualized as that phase of life where we cease thinking about our potential as human beings, and start focusing on our limitations. No more. While not everything looks rosy (stay tuned for next week’s tip list), there are at least a few trends out there that do bode well for those of us hovering at the mid-point of our lives.

Here are five reasons to feel optimistic:

1. People are living longer. According to scientists, more people than ever before are living to older adulthood. In the U.S., the average lifespan has risen 30 years since 1900. And today’s older adults are better-educated, healthier, more active and more affluent than any previous generation. Plus, as I pointed out last week, the labor market is becoming more diverse and there will be more jobs for the over-55 set. So there’s lots more time – and more to do.

2. Our brains keep evolving. New research also shows that – contrary to the long-held view that our brains get fixed in early childhood – circuits in the adult brain are, in fact, continually modified by experience. The result? In some respects, we actually think better in middle age. Specifically, inductive reasoning and problem solving improves in the middle-aged brain. We get the gist of an argument better. We arrive at solutions more quickly. Even financial judgments peak in middle age.

3. People are happier over 50. This is also both surprising and welcome news. A survey of more than 340,000 people published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that overall feelings of wellbeing improve as we pass middle age. Specifically, levels of stress, worry and anger all dropped significantly for people in their fifties, while levels of happiness and enjoyment increased. While the study wasn’t designed to identify the causes of increased happiness, scholars speculated that with age comes greater wisdom and emotional intelligence. A similar study carried out in Canada also found that self-esteem is highest among middle-aged boomers. The corollary of all this research? We can probably expect to see fewer mid-life crises.

4. Even divorce can be positive. As the endless analyses of Al and Tipper Gore’s break up tell us, late divorce (i.e. divorce in marriages 20 years or longer) is increasingly common. But it’s also not necessarily a bad thing. A large number of articles that followed on the Gores’ split emphasized late divorce as a form of autonomy and self-actualizationespecially for women – rather than just sticking it out for longevity’s sake. For me, at least, that was the first time I’d seen divorce as a cultural trend discussed in positive terms.

5. The AARP has had a makeover. Yup, that’s right folks. The American Association for Retired Persons (that’s AARP for all those in the know) has had an on-line overhaul in order to cater to the digital demands of the over-50 crowd. So for all you aging Facebook-ers out there, you have a new on-line hang out.

Image: AARP by Somewhat Frank via Flickr under a Creative Commons license.

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