Midlife Crisis: Myths, Misconceptions, and Insights

My wife has warned me that she will not take it well if I have a midlife crisis. I find this funny because having one had never even occurred to me. In fact, I am becoming more content with my life as I get older. This week I read a few articles on the topic and found that my experience is not that unusual. Although, midlife “crises” sometimes occur in careers, marriages, and for those with health issues, the popular notion of the midlife crisis is largely a myth.

What Exactly Is a Midlife Crisis?

A “midlife crisis” is an emotional crisis of identity and self-confidence that occurs in middle age. It’s usually triggered by trouble accepting that your health/beauty is declining, by realizing your life has not turned out the way you envisioned, or by discovering that while you have a seemingly great life, you are still not happy. Disappointment can always make you depressed or regretful, but a midlife crisis is usually marked by making radical changes to try to feel young again. The classic symptoms of a midlife crisis (affairs, reckless spending, or obsessive cosmetic procedures) often have bad social and financial repercussions.

The term midlife crisis originated in an article titled “Death and Midlife Crises” by the late Canadian psychologist Elliott Jaques. The article was written in 1957 and published in the Journal of Psychoanalysis in 1965. The topic got a lot of attention in media and pop culture. It was subsequently studied by mental health professionals who found that most middle-aged people don’t experience midlife crises. Regardless, let’s take a quick look at some of the causes, misconceptions, and realities of midlife crises.

Most People Are Happier Later in Life

The main driver of a midlife crisis is a rocky transition from being young, ambitious, and goal-oriented (some might even say idealistic) to being more mature and realistic. Becoming “more realistic” sounds like a downer, but it’s not. The reality ismost people are happiest when they are young (before 25), and when they are older (over 50), with life satisfaction dipping in the middle (from age 25-50). This pattern (the happiness smile graph) has been found in many countries and cultures.

The reason people’s life satisfaction drops in the middle is the stress from careers, raising kids, and competing financial demands. Some unfulfilled life goals are easier to accept than others. When I was young, I really wanted to bench press 300 lbs. Suffice it to say, that never happened. The good news is it didn’t trigger an identity crisis. Unhappy marriages, divorce, and failed businesses or careers are more likely to lead to a midlife crisis. The process of adjusting our expectations can be tough, but most people muddle through without taking the uncharacteristic financial or lifestyle risks associated with midlife crises.

Midlife Crises More Likely for High Achievers

One misconception is that midlife crises are only for low achievers or people who’ve failed at something. The reality is midlife crises are more likely for high achievers and people who seemingly have a great life but find that their achievements or lifestyle don’t make them happy. It is common to be satisfied for a little while after achieving a goal, but often contentment is fleeting.

Why Aren’t More People Satisfied with Their Lives?

One thing I’ve learned through my study of Financial Life Planning with the Kinder Institute is it’s hard to stay content unless your goals are tied into deeper values. Many people think they will be satisfied if they just _____________ (fill in the blank). For example, suppose your goal is to save $1 million. Why a million? I don’t know; it just sounded good. You’ll probably be happy to get there, but the happiness won’t last. Most people just set a new, bigger goal. The contentment is more likely to last (as an example) if your goal is to save enough to buy a small vacation home near your children or grandchildren…or to quit a job you dread so you can pursue a career you’re passionate about. So think about tying your goals to deeply held values and priorities.

Harmful Perceptions of Midlife Crises

It is common to think of someone going through a midlife crisis (acting out) as selfish or self-indulgent. Remember that many of these people are really struggling through a tough emotional time. They may be afraid to talk about it because they don’t want to be told that their feelings or actions are unjustified or that they should be on medication. Often the actions of someone in a crisis don’t match the person’s emotions. Nevertheless, if you know someone going through one, the biggest help you can give is just to be a good listener. Remember to listen for understanding, notfor judgment. Then give your friend or family member compassion and the reassurance that this is a perfectly normal phase of life.

Why Does Life Satisfaction Improve for Most People After 50?

The good news is that the confusing and stressful middle part of life typically gives way to contentment. Life satisfaction improves for most people after age 50 because folks begin to place more value on relationships and they limit their pursuits to the activities they find meaningful. Emotional well-being doesn’t peak for the average person until their 70s. Understanding this is super-important because nothing will get you through a tough time like the belief that the best times in life are yet to come.

Thoughts, questions, comments?  Email me: jeremy@jeremykisner.com