Is a midlife crisis a real thing, or is something deeper going on? | Life (2023)

Maybe you slipped into crisis mode during your 40s after an expected career change, or maybe it was your 50s after your kids went off to college. Or maybe you’re a real go-getter and it happened when you turned 25 and, instead of celebrating, you got stuck working late at a job you didn’t even like (@me). Whatever your specific sitch, you’re convinced this must be what a midlife crisis (or, okay, quarterlife crisis, for all the wunderkinds in the room) feels like.

Before you go out and blow your savings on a little red convertible (or your go-to equivalent), pump the brakes on your breakdown. Here’s what’s actually going on when the growing gets tough, according to experts.

First things first, is a midlife crisis a real thing?

Nope, it’s a unicorn…as in “a mythical creature in psychology,” says Dr Susan Krauss Whitborne, Professor Emerita in the Psychological and Brain Sciences department at University of Massachusetts Amherst. In fact, she adds, “We [people who do research in this area] really don’t find evidence that age is associated with any distinct changes in personality that would constitute what is popularly called a ‘midlife crisis.'”

She cautions that the term “midlife crisis” isn’t just fictional in itself, but that putting such a label on a tough time in your life can also be reductive and harmful to your overall mental health. It’s easy to chalk your problems up to age and slap a “This, too, shall pass” bumper sticker on ’em. It’s a lot harder to investigate what might be causing your increased anxiety, stress, or even depression — and face it head on, potentially with professional help.

So, if I’m not experiencing the signs of a midlife crisis, what’s going on?

Well, life. “People can go through a period of questioning and challenging at any point in adulthood, and it could be triggered by who knows what,” says Whitbourne. Maybe you’re dealing with an unexpected financial burden, caring for ageing parents, or feeling purposeless now that your kids have moved out. While the cause varies person to person, a 2008 study by economists David Blanchflower and Andrew Oswald found “the U-curve of happiness” — a.k.a. a statistical trend showing that people begin life optimistic, but that happiness decreases as they enter adulthood, and then bounces back in late adulthood — in 55 of 8o countries. (They also cited more than 20 other papers finding the U.)

According to their research, the average person hits rock bottom at age 46. (Sorry to anyone who just celebrated that particular birthday.) Luckily, that doesn’t last very long, says Barbara Bradley Hagerty, journalist and author of Life Reimagined: The Science, Art, and Opportunity of Midlife. “What begins to happen in your 50s is that you start to focus on things that are really important to you. You focus on your kids, your hobbies, the parts of work that really feel meaningful, and you begin to kind of climb up that U curve of happiness,” she explains. “Through your 50s and 60s and into your 70s, you actually become happier.”

Of course, with every rule comes an exception. This one? “People who have purpose in life, who really feel like they have a reason to get out of bed in the morning, their U curve of happiness is higher, no matter what their education or income level is,” notes Hagerty. “What they found is having a purpose in life seems to be this magic bullet, where people who have meaningful relationships [and engage in] meaningful activities seem to be happier.”

That said, Whitbourne maintains her point that, psychologically speaking, putting “midlife” in front of another word changes its meaning. “There’s so much individual variability, and part of what we find in our research is that people don’t all age the same,” she notes. “And midlife can be anywhere from 30 to 60, so that’s the other problem — it’s a little bit imprecise.”

READ MORE: How To Deal With The Difficult People In Your Life, According To Psychologists

How can I deal with something that feels like a midlife crisis (even though it really isn’t)?

If you suddenly feel a prolonged lack of energy (to the point where even brushing your teeth feels like a chore) or a glacier-sized weight of responsibilities resting on your chest, those are two potential signs that you’re going through something serious. It’s not necessarily a midlife crisis (because, again, those don’t exist), but — as the kids say — the struggle is real.

Your best bet to feel less bleh: “Look at whatever the signs are that you’re labelling a ‘midlife crisis’ or a malaise and say, ‘What’s really going on with me?'” says Whitbourne. Then, she recommends asking yourself how you can address the real, underlying issues and what steps you can take to feel better, learn from this experience, or grow.

Work suddenly feels harder than it used to? It’s probably not because you’re lacking in any actual energy — no matter how bogged down you might feel, says Hagerty. More likely, you’re just bored. Hagerty recalls learning this lesson from Howard H. Stevenson, the Sarofim-Rock Baker Foundation Professor emeritus at Harvard Business School and author of Just Enough: Tools for Creating Success in Your Work and Life. He told her, “If you’re doing the same thing year in and year out, you’re going to feel this malaise. So, do you have 20 years of experience, or do you have one year of experience 20 times?”

If you answer with the latter, then you’ve probably gone into crisis mode because you’re craving a new challenge. Hagerty suggests re-finding your purpose by “pivoting on your strengths” to do more of whatever makes you — ya guessed it — happy. Maybe that means asking your boss to focus on a different part of your work responsibilities, or using the skills you already have to switch into an adjacent lane for your career. Instant solution? No, but it is a surefire way to feel more fulfilled.

When the walls of responsibility seem to be closing in—family, work, mortgage (so, literally) — you can feel weighed down and with nowhere else to go. And, to a certain extent, you are stuck in this life you’ve created. “But the point is that if you just put one foot in front of the other…you’re going to get through it,” Hagerty says.

One thing to make the slog feel less like a, well, slog? Remembering that these responsibilities are the good kind. That’s where the socioemotional selectivity theory, developed by Laura Carstensen, Professor of Psychology and founding director of the Stanford Center on Longevity at Stanford University, comes in. She found that, as people age, they naturally begin to focus on what gives them emotional satisfaction and meaning, like their children, career, and home life.

What if I need some motivation?

Hagerty suggests reconnecting with old friends you might’ve lost touch with over the years, or making new ones by taking up a new hobby or finally pursuing a long-held passion. That can help fulfill what she calls “a little purpose,” which is any activity — whether it be cycling class or guitar lessons — that gives you a reason to bust out of bed in the morning. (The “big purpose,” she says, is often your family, especially children and grandchildren, but it can also be something external, like a political cause.)

Ultimately, knowing you’re not having a midlife crisis can, in itself, make you feel better, adds Whitbourne. Bad week or month (or several)? Sure. But it’s not a “crisis” — it’s just another normal part of growing up.

This article was originally published on www.womenshealthsa.co.za

Image credit: iStock

FAQs

Is a midlife crisis a real thing, or is something deeper going on? | Life? ›

While many report feelings of life dissatisfaction as they grow older, there's little evidence that we usually experience a crisis in middle age. Editor's Note: Nick Haslam is a professor of psychology at the University of Melbourne.

Is a mid life crisis a real thing? ›

In studies, only about 10 to 20 percent of adults claim to have experienced a midlife crisis. While the idea of a midlife crisis being an inevitable reality doesn't hold much weight, some of us do face new stressors as we enter these years.

What triggers midlife crisis? ›

Common triggers include job loss, health concerns, a parent's death or illness, children moving out, or even day-to-day overwhelm. The crisis period. This stage typically involves some examination of your doubts, relationships, values, and sense of self.

What is the average age for a midlife crisis? ›

Midlife crisis symptoms vary widely from person to person. The most common midlife crisis age range is 35 to 55, with some variability between genders.

Is midlife crisis a mental breakdown? ›

"When crisis point is reached they go through a profound psychological breakdown, often accompanied by symptoms of stress, anxiety and depression." Yuko Nippoda, psychotherapist and spokesperson for the UK Council for Psychotherapy (UKCP), adds that lack of energy and stamina can trigger a midlife crisis.

What age does unhappiness peak? ›

Starting at age 18, your happiness level begins to decrease, reaching peak unhappiness at 47.2 in developed countries and 48.2 in developing countries. The good news is that happiness levels then gradually increase.

What are the regrets of a midlife crisis? ›

The regret of most individuals experiencing midlife crises has a lot to do with the disappointment that they did not live a good or full life. They feel they were untrue to themselves and lived a life based on the approval of others. Do not focus on what-ifs. This will only bring confusion and self-doubt.

What are the 5 stages of midlife crisis? ›

Carl Jung (1875–1961), in his extensive writings, identified five stages associated with an innate, normal, and expected midlife transition: accommodation, separation, liminality, reintegration, and individuation.

What are the three stages of a midlife crisis? ›

A midlife crisis can be broken into three stages: the trigger, the crisis and the resolution. The trigger is the event that causes stress, such as job loss.

How do you break a midlife crisis? ›

10 Tips to Turn a Midlife Crisis into a Fresh Re(start)
  1. Focus on yourself.
  2. Keep track of changes.
  3. Learn something new.
  4. Reconnect.
  5. Make time for your love life.
  6. Stay active.
  7. Add healthy habits.
  8. Spend time outdoors.
Oct 14, 2021

What are four symptoms of a midlife crisis? ›

Below are common symptoms of a midlife crisis in men and women:
  • Feeling sad or a lack of confidence, especially after a big milestone accomplishment or birthday.
  • Feeling bored; Loss of meaning or purpose in life.
  • Feeling unfulfilled.
  • Feelings of nostalgia.
  • Excessively thinking about the past.
  • Making impulse actions.

Which is a common side of a midlife crisis? ›

Common signs and symptoms of a midlife crisis may include: Anxiety. Abrupt career or lifestyle changes, such as quitting a job or moving homes. Behavior changes, including becoming antisocial, impulsive or irrational.

What happens to the brain during a midlife crisis? ›

The brain at midlife also appears capable of rewiring itself and generating new neurons in response to physical activity and new experiences. Scientists also believe the process of myelination helps the middle-aged brain strengthen its cognitive abilities.

Can midlife crisis change your personality? ›

This crisis can affect self-concept and self-confidence, leading to changes in moods, behaviors, emotions, and relationships as people cope with the transition to midlife.

Is a midlife crisis selfish? ›

For most adults, midlife, or middle age, is a period of personal growth, stability, insight, responsibility, maturity and acceptance. For a small percentage of people, it can be a time of confusion, apprehension, regret, and midlife crisis depression resulting in selfish, reckless, and hedonistic behavior.

What is the unhappiest stage of life? ›

The most unhappy time of your life is your forties, according to a phenomenon known as the "u-shaped" curve which states that happiness bottoms out around your forties then trends back up as you grow older.

Which age is the hardest in life? ›

Ages 24 - 29 are typically the hardest psychologically because you constantly beat yourself up about where you are in life vs where you think you should be. If you're in that age bracket, please be kind to yourself, you're not doing badly and it definitely gets easier.

What is the happiest age in life? ›

According to a study published in the Social Indicators Research journal, we're the happiest between the ages of 30-34, and midlife (our 40s and 50s) is not perceived as the least happy period in life.

What are 5 regrets people have at the end of their life? ›

1) “I wish I'd had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.” 2) “I wish I hadn't worked so hard.” 3) “I wish I'd had the courage to express my feelings.” 4) “I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.” 5) “I wish I had let myself be happier” (p.

Do they come back after midlife crisis? ›

Yes, sometimes people who leave in the throes of a midlife crisis do come back. Sometimes, their partner no longer wants them. But rather than concentrate your energy on your husband's behavior and choices, I hope you will take a long look at your own life. Deal with your grief and the profound loss and change.

Do men ever regret their mid life crisis? ›

Some, however, feel some sort of wistfulness or even regret. Some feel lost, while some think they are missing out in life, and that they could be happier if they make drastic changes. These are the exact sentiments that often trigger a midlife crisis in men, and affairs often follow.

What is the empty nest syndrome in midlife crisis? ›

Empty nest syndrome is a psychological condition that affects both parents, results in a feeling of grief (feeling of loss, redundancy, unworthiness, and uncertainty about the future) due to their children's departure [2]. It mostly coincides with other major events in life (e.g. Menopause, illness, or retirement).

Do females go through midlife crisis? ›

Midlife crises are common for both men and women in middle age, but as an article from the Cleveland Clinic explains, midlife crises can present a little differently in women as compared to men. When you consider that many women experience the physical changes that come with menopause during mid-life, this makes sense.

Do midlife crisis go away? ›

Mid-life crises last about 3–10 years in men and 2–5 years in women. A mid-life crisis could be caused by aging itself, or aging in combination with changes, problems, or regrets over: work or career (or lack thereof) spousal relationships (or lack of them)

What are the two choices that keep a midlife crisis? ›

The developmental psychologist Erik Erikson believed that midlife presents a crossroads with two paths forward, which he called generativity and stagnation.

How does a midlife crisis feel? ›

Signs of midlife crises can vary (like stressors and the crisis itself), but some indicators include feeling depressed or anxious, having low motivation, having difficulty sleeping, struggling with questions of identity or purpose, and feeling overwhelmed or dissatisfied.

Do narcissists have midlife crisis? ›

The narcissist experiences a constant midlife crisis. His reality is always way short of his dreams and aspirations. He suffers a constant Grandiosity Gap - the same Gap that plagues the healthy midlife adult. But the narcissist has one advantage: he is used to being disappointed and disillusioned.

What are the signs of a midlife crisis? ›

What are the symptoms?
  • Feeling sad or a lack of confidence, especially after a big milestone accomplishment or birthday.
  • Feeling bored; Loss of meaning or purpose in life.
  • Feeling unfulfilled.
  • Feelings of nostalgia.
  • Excessively thinking about the past.
  • Making impulse actions.
  • Feelings of regret.

Can a midlife crisis happen at 30? ›

People seem to expect that a midlife crisis could come about. However, they rarely expect it to hit in their 30s. When it does, it's surprising and upsetting. However, these days, it's not at all rare to have a midlife crisis at 30.

Can you have a mid life crisis at 35? ›

A midlife crisis is an emotionally uncomfortable period that people go through between the age of 35 and 65. 1 For many, the crisis presents as a period of existential self-evaluation as one finds themselves at the crossroads between youth and old age, like constantly questioning their life choices or behaviors.

How do you fix midlife crisis? ›

Here's how you can cope if you are having a midlife crisis
  1. Reflect on your thoughts. Emotions can irrationally drive your thoughts when you're in crisis. ...
  2. Understand how and why your roles change as you get older. ...
  3. Get more physical activity. ...
  4. Interact with your friends and family.
Mar 25, 2022

How does your personality change during a midlife crisis? ›

This crisis can affect self-concept and self-confidence, leading to changes in moods, behaviors, emotions, and relationships as people cope with the transition to midlife. It's thought that aging leads to feelings of depression, remorse, and anxiety.

What comes before midlife crisis? ›

What is the quarter-life crisis? Similar to the more widely recognized midlife crisis, the quarter-life crisis is a period of uncertainty and questioning that typically occurs when people feel trapped, uninspired and disillusioned during their mid-20s to early 30s.

Can a marriage survive a man's midlife crisis? ›

A lot of people want to know, can marriages survive the midlife crisis, and the answer is yes. A midlife crisis destroying your marriage is a common fear of many married couples, but there is a way around a lot of these problems.

Does midlife crisis lead to divorce? ›

Your wife's midlife crisis might not lead to a divorce, but it will most likely lead to a difficult time in your marriage. At times, a midlife crisis wife wants to be alone. It may be difficult to help your wife through her midlife crisis or understand how to deal with a wife's midlife crisis.

Do mid life crisis affairs last? ›

Roughly 1/3rd of these affairs tend to be short term. A moment of weakness which I use to help two people learn and repair their lives. Another third will be more intense but still, burn out roughly around 7 to 9 months of time. I find that 90% of midlife affairs will fail over two years time.

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