How many of us react to midlife by acquiring a tattoo, a sports car, a young blonde or a facelift? Not as many as you might think. The midlife crisis stereotype appears to be just that: a stereotype. We joke about it and worry about it, it’s the subject of books and movies both fearful and funny, but when it comes down to the science, well, there isn’t any. The midlife crisis is simply not a scientifically based concept.
I came across this surprising information while reading Barbara Strauch’s heartening book, Secrets of the Grown-Up Brain. In it she also defuses myths like the empty nest syndrome and that our brains inevitably deteriorate with age.
Contrary to common opinion, our brains function better than ever at midlife and beyond, and along with this, our wellbeing increases.
In fact at midlife we usually experience greater life satisfaction than ever before. Far from a complete midlife freakout characterised by attempts to clutch onto our ebbing youth, we’re more confident, more accomplished, happier, and cope better with stress. Midlife is unlikely to be the time of depression, emotional tumult and regret we are led to expect.
So where did this idea come from and why is it pervasive? And does the very idea lead to expectations which precipitate negative thinking about midlife?
Strauch details evidence which shows that crises occur at any age, are not more likely to occur at midlife, and that crises that do occur at midlife are often event-related rather than age-related. Results from the MacArthur Foundation Research Network on Successful Midlife Development (1999) showed that during the 10-year study, only 5% of nearly 8,000 American participants reported any kind of trauma at midlife, and those that did tended to have experienced trauma throughout their lives. Think of that: only a tiny proportion – 5%! – of the population studied was having a difficult midlife experience, and for those few who were, it was unlikely to be caused by midlife.
Clearly the stereotypes serve us poorly. Imagine instead a positive vision of our midlife selves as confident, capable and empowered. We would anticipate midlife differently. Instead we’re fed images of midlife misery and uncertainty. Western obsessions with youth and physical perfection and, I would hazard a guess, negative stereotyping about menopause and ageing in general, also fuel the midlife crisis myth.
In cultures where ageing is marked by increasing status and a recognition of qualities that are acquired with experience, such as maturity, wisdom, competence, and compassion, one can imagine that ageing is something to look forward to rather than to dread.
Strauch traces the genesis of the midlife crisis concept to very recent history. In the 1960s Elliot Jacques, the ‘father of the midlife crisis’, wrote a book on the subject based on an inadequate study of a few randomly selected artists. The idea became mainstream with the advent of popular books like Gail Sheehy’s Passages, and Daniel Levinson’s The Seasons of a Man’s Life (based on a mere 40 men chosen by the author).
Thank goodness for newer, sturdier, larger studies which have revealed a happier midlife truth.
To quote Harvard’s Ronald Kessler, who co-directed the MacArthur survey: ‘The data show that middle age is the very best time of life.’ Hold that thought.