Society treats the midlife crisis more like a punchline than an actual problem. We mock 40-something men driving sports cars or similarly-aged women dying their hair a shocking shade and snagging a younger beau. We write off this social and cultural phenomenon as an excuse for impulsive behavior (or a denial of reality).
However, new research suggests that midlife crises are more than just cheesy sitcom fodder. According to data from the National Bureau of Economic Research, there is a tangible difference in happiness between people who are 20 and 40. Despite the latter typically being the most financially prosperous and independent, their joy doesn’t match up.
And while everyone reacts to this emotional transition differently, it has the potential for disastrous results. So, maybe it’s time we laid off the midlife crisis jokes?
An Actual Headache Or A Hoax?
Canadian psychoanalyst Elliot Jacques coined the term “midlife crisis” in 1965. He described it as a time when many people are forced to come to terms with their mortality. Since then, the midlife crisis has become a household concept with varying degrees of support.
Writer Dean J. Murphy is in the unsupportive camp: “Midlife crises do not exist,” he wrote in a 2020 Medium article. “They are merely a marketing scheme based upon poor science and movies.” Dr. Susan Krauss Whitbourne shared similar sentiments five years earlier in an article published in Psychology Today.
“There is virtually no data to support the assertion that the midlife crisis is a universal experience,” Whitbourne wrote. “Cornell University sociologist Elaine Wethington talks about the midlife crisis as a case of ‘expected stress.’ You think everyone will have a midlife crisis, so you feel you have to fit into the mold.”
In a way, denouncing the existence of midlife crises is empowering. With no potential crisis to worry about, you can buy that car, take that vacation, or switch up your career or love life guilt- and shame-free. As long as you feel emotionally and mentally well, then that’s all that matters. But what if you don’t?
The Real-(Mid)-Life Ramifications
For those struggling with their psychological well-being in midlife, writing off the midlife crisis as a sham can be disheartening. If there’s no such thing, then why would these symptoms still affect so many? That makes the NBER study so important, especially for high-risk individuals.
The group of economists and behavioral scientists surveyed 20,648 working individuals aged 15-75 to collect data regarding suicide, sleep disturbances, depression, career strain, headaches, concentration or memory problems, and alcohol dependence. The data fell into an upside-down U, or hill shape, every time.
Among all genders and socioeconomic backgrounds, participants in midlife (from late 30s to early 50s) recorded higher instances of stress, unhappiness, substance abuse, and mental, emotional, and sleep disturbances. Considering other life factors around this age set, researchers found these results disturbing.
“Middle-aged citizens in our data sets are close to their peak earnings, have typically experienced little or no illness, reside in some of the safest countries in the world, and live in the most prosperous era in human history,” the study reads. “This is paradoxical and troubling. We believe the seriousness of this societal problem has not been grasped by the affluent world’s policy-makers.”
Accurately comparing evidence rooted in emotional phenomena is difficult, and most midlife crisis studies acknowledge this. However, it isn’t just humans that experience this type of slump. A 2012 study found similar downward emotional trends in middle-aged great apes, suggesting a stronger biological influence.
Making The Most Of Midlife And Beyond
But whether you are a midlife crisis believer or a denier, the data is worth considering. It’s clear that emotional wellness wanes around the middle-age mark, despite other markers of prosperity reaching their peak. This is true across multiple studies, countries, and even species.
Still, the midlife experience varies from person to person. What appears as a crisis to one person might be a so-so month to someone else. Perhaps the issue isn’t whether a midlife crisis exists. Maybe the problem is how we’re trying to define it.
If you are confident and secure in your midlife years, then there is scientific data backing up your notable lack of crisis. You’re not an anomaly, nor are you secretly doing something wrong. Your midlife crisis might seem more like one bad week when you were 42, and that’s okay. But if you find yourself struggling, then this research allows you to give yourself some grace.
For many individuals, midlife is a tumultuous chapter. Its effects go beyond flashy Ferraris or outlandish shopping sprees. They can have real-life ramifications, particularly for those at higher risk of developing mental disorders or substance abuse. By giving this phenomenon the credence it deserves, one can better look out for struggles (plus solutions and preventative measures) for family, friends, and themselves.
There is no cut-and-dry definition of the midlife crisis, it seems. There is freedom in knowing that, for some, midlife is liberating at best and uneventful at worst. But there is also grace and compassion in knowing that it can feel like a crisis for some.
No matter where you fall on the midlife experience spectrum, you’re not alone. And that’s the important part.