The Good (And Bad) News About The Midlife Crisis

“There aren’t many things I don’t want to experience in life, but the sensual caress of a parent going through mid-life crisis is one of them.” —Maddox

In A Nutshell

After the term “midlife crisis” was coined in 1965, it became ingrained in our collective consciousness. But recent studies—some spanning decades—have found that most people don’t go through a midlife crisis. At least, not when they’re in their midlife years. Hitting 40 seemed to be the start of a general upswing in overall happiness and life satisfaction, with much of the soul searching and depression happening to those in their thirties.

The Whole Bushel

When we think about growing older, there are few things that are as ingrained in the public consciousness as the midlife crisis. It’s why people of a certain age—particularly men—can’t get a nice new convertible without also getting some smirks, and it’s why we also seem to hear about so many people quitting their jobs or changing up their relationships when that birthday number gets to a certain point.

But it’s not exactly true.

The idea is fairly new, with the phrase “midlife crisis” only showing up in 1965 when it was coined by a psychoanalyst named Elliot Jaques. He said that the sudden realization of how little we’d done and how little time we had left tended to send us immediately careening off the deep end as we tried to make up for all our lost time. A midlife crisis was jump-started by the rapid approach of another magic number, 65, which was first associated with retirement age in Germany in 1916. (This was after Chancellor Otto von Bismarck originally established 70 as the age people could receive a pension because, he stated, not many people would live to 70.)

Jaques’s term made it into pop culture, but the science of a midlife crisis is a little more hazy. According to a study from the National Institute on Aging, 26 percent of adults surveyed reported they’d had a midlife crisis. That was for respondents who were aged 25–75; when they restricted their results to those over 50 years old, 35 percent said they’d experienced a midlife crisis.

When they looked at their results a little more, they found that the problems generally associated with a midlife crisis—a sense of inner turmoil, feelings of stress about getting older, and a general sort of upheaval—weren’t necessarily a midlife thing. They happened to people indiscriminately, no matter what age they were. And frequently, they were in their thirties.

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Another study from the University of Warwick actually suggested that 40 was the average age for an upswing in happiness and overall life satisfaction. They found that the years between 40 and 50 generally marked a lessening of family demands as children gained independence. By the time most people reached 40, they had matured enough to have more resources to deal with any kind of crisis that occurred.

In a paper presented to the 2015 Annual Convention of the American Psychological Association, a 34-year-long study of around 500 people found that when it came to a low point in overall life satisfaction and a sense of searching for meaning and purpose, that part of the midlife crisis came much earlier, when most people were in their thirties. Those that hit 40 were definitely on the upswing in that study.

They also debunked another oft-repeated idea about the midlife crisis: that happiness can be charted on a U-shaped grid that reaches its lowest in the midlife years. Instead, they found high points and low points all along the grid, and they found that everyone is different.

And a study from the University of Florida at Tucson also supported the idea that most people experienced the emotional stress of a so-called midlife crisis much earlier, with younger adults more susceptible to overwhelming daily stress than older adults who had matured into being more capable of dealing with what life had to throw at them. As people aged into midlife, it was found that stressors had something of a positive impact. Older adults who were confronted with stressful events felt more accomplished when they got through them, and when surveyed, many said it made them feel as though they had more control over their lives in middle age than they did in youth.

So the good news is that a midlife crisis at 40-something is largely a myth. The bad news is that all the stress and misery that’s associated with it just seems to happen earlier in life.

Show Me The Proof

Harvard Business Review: The Existential Necessity of Midlife Change
Wall Street Journal: The Myth of the Midlife Crisis
Psychology Today: Worried About a Midlife Crisis? Don’t. There’s No Such Thing
American Psychological Association: Researchers replace midlife myths with facts