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Midlife Crisis May Be a Temporary Adjustment of Life Priorities

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December 14, 2014
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Life changes ranging from divorce to quitting a dead-end job to moving to a new town – and let’s not forget red convertibles and gym memberships - are sometimes tossed into a big basket of blame called “midlife crisis.” Some may question whether or not the adjustments required throughout life can be fenced off into a generalized “midlife crisis” that surfaces when men and women reach their 40s and move into their 50s.

The Happiness U-Curve

Jonathan Rauch offers in “The Real Roots of Midlife Crisis” in the December 2014 issue of The Atlantic that from his 40s through his early 50s he experienced an inability to fully appreciate his professional and personal achievements, despite his intellectual understanding that there was much to appreciate. Rauch reasons that his midlife angst turned out to be a predictable transition through the “happiness U-curve.” That’s a description of a turnaround developed from studies charting life satisfaction, which found adult happiness to bottom out in the 40s or early 50s and then turn around, with satisfaction increasing with age and often reaching higher levels during the 60s, 70s and even later years.

Crisis Triggers and Timing

Life cycles may contribute to what some experience as midlife downturn in optimism. Pushing forward on the career ladder, stresses in relationships or marriage, responsibilities for children and aging parents, the death of family members or friends, unexpected loss of a job and financial chains that go with all the elements of midlife may sometimes take the glitter off what may actually be solid achievements of a personal dream.

This unsettling, sometimes a shake-up resulting from a health or financial crisis, may bring the question: “Is this all there is?” Or more importantly, it may lead to questions that begin the upturn: “What do I really want?” and “Where do I go from here?

Some researchers say the reality of time, the shortening of the years ahead, forces people to re-evaluate what they can and want to achieve and to let go of things that are no longer a priority, as well as to concentrate on meaningful activities and relationships and the enjoyment of the “now.”

Good News, The Emotional Peak Comes Later

Rauch points to a 2011 study by Stanford University psychologist Laura Carstensen and seven colleagues who found that “the peak of emotional life may not occur until well into the seventh decade”— a finding Carstensen said, that “ …is often met with disbelief in both the general population and the research community.”

Research on the U-curve aside, University of Massachusetts Amherst psychology professor Susan Krauss Whitbourne doesn’t buy the whole midlife crisis scenario.

“Despite its popularity in the popular culture, there isn’t much evidence for a midlife crisis,” said Whitbourne in an Oct. 12, 2014 article in the Wall Street Journal. Whitbourne is conducting an on-going study of more than 450 people who graduated from college between 1965 and 2006. Many of the participants in her study who had crises in their 40s and 50s also experienced similar upheavals earlier in their lives, so Whitbourne concludes that midlife doesn’t put people at higher risk for crises.

British psychotherapist Philippa Perry considers all the fuss about the “midlife crisis” much ado about nothing. Perry wrote in the Oct. 17, 2014 issue of The Guardian, “Midlife crisis is not a biological certainty, like the menopause or death, but if you experience such a crisis, I hope you enjoy the outcomes of it. With a bit of luck we can learn to inhabit our own skin, strive for authenticity and dare to be who we really are, rather than continuing with patterns that no longer fit us. I think we should try to enjoy what time we have left…and oh, it’s OK to spend the kids’ inheritance on a sports car or a motorbike.”

In research done by Jeffrey Arnett, a psychology professor at Clark University in Worcester, Mass., some participants in their 40s, 50s and 60s said those years are a time of “re-evaluation and reassessment,” particularly empty-nesters. While “there is anxiety that goes along with that,” Arnett said many people said in those decades they experienced a feeling of “renewed freedom and possibility.”


Rauch, Jonathan, “The Real Roots of Midlife Crisis," The Atlantic, December 2014.

Tergesen, Anne, “The Myth of the Midlife Crisis,” Wall Street Journal, Oct. 12, 2014.

Perry, Philippa, “The Midlife Crisis is a Lie, Now Go and Buy Yourself a Motorbike, The Guardian, Oct. 17, 2014

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