We all know the symptoms: the red sports car, the leather jacket, the journey to “find oneself,” the tattoos. The midlife crises is a strong narrative—an organizing principle for understanding men and women who suddenly realize they are not the person they thought they were going to become, and who attempt to change that by buying a motorcycle or tattooing “love” on their ankle. But is this whole thing even real?
Studies show that people between 35 and 55 do indeed suffer a dip in well-being (as do teenagers and the oldest of old). Puberty and very old age are easy to explain: social and physical factors make you pimply, self conscious, alone and infirm. But in the middle of your life, none of that is true. As Jenny Changreau writes at The Conversation about her research into the mid-life crisis:
There seems to be something in particular about the midlife crisis (and the old age crisis for women) that makes it less amenable to differences in circumstances than the troubled mid-teen years. Our analysis showed that the midlife crisis is not because it coincides with the children in the household being moody teenagers. Nor is it because of the quality of the relationship between partners, or indeed whether one has a partner at all. Neither is it explained by feeling unable to cope with the demands of work, being unsatisfied with work, leisure or income or even poor mental health. Midlife remained stubbornly linked with lower well-being when we controlled for all these and a whole bunch of other characteristics.
Basically, she says, research shows that the midlife crisis is very real, but they still don’t really have any idea why it happens. “Other research has suggested that the midlife crisis occurs due to unmet expectations,” she writes, “the realization that one’s youthful aspirations have not and will not be achieved, and that as people adjust their expectations in later life wellbeing improves.” At WebMD, Kathleen Doheny writes that with kids out of the house many reevaluate their lives. “Women, feeling they have raised their children, may want to go back to school, even if they have been in the work force, reasoning they can now do whatever they wish, work-wise,” Doheny writes. Men, on the other hand, often yearn for the bad boy image that they looked up to as teenagers – hence the motorcycle and sports car.
There’s nothing particularly wrong about having a midlife crisis—as long as you can afford that car or that trip to the yoga retreat. Your kids will still always roll their eyes though.
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