Regardless of your gender, career, financial status, health, or overall well-being, chances are you’re going to start feeling differently in your mid-40s.
The bad news is this change is not for the better.
The good news is that it isn’t permanent and you can prepare for it by recognising the symptoms, which can include dissatisfaction, lowered self-esteem, and an overall sense of unhappiness.
This torrent of emotional turmoil is often referred to as a mid-life crisis, and it can make us take drastic, uncharacteristic measures — like leaving our spouse or quitting our job — in an attempt to subdue the chaos.
A mid-life crisis is a real, scientifically-proven thing, not just an excuse to splurge on a fancy new car. Most people start to experience symptoms in their mid 40s and 50s, with the average age of onset being 46, according to a 2008 paper which looked at a random sample of 500,000 Americans and West Europeans.
Not everyone has a mid-life crisis, but a 2010 study found that people in more than 50 countries reported symptoms of markedly decreased happiness in middle-aged people across a wide variety of socioeconomic groups. This suggests that there are fundamental issues at play.
Who’s at risk
Below is a chart from the 2010 study indicating that both genders suffer from a similar mid-life dip in their personal sense of well-being.
For the study, researchers used information from a phone survey of more than 340,000 Americans between the ages of 18 and 85 done over a 30-day period. The survey assessed them to report their well-being (WB) on a 10-point scale (10 being the most positive) using a series of questions that asked them about their level of satisfaction with various parts of their lives, from their standard of living to their community, job, relationships, and personal health.
Unfortunately, this data suggests that if you haven’t hit 40, you’re likely on a downward trend toward a mid-life crisis. The good news is that this crisis is likely rock bottom, which means (hopefully) that you can only go up from there.
More importantly, of the people studied, most grew increasingly satisfied with their lives as they aged.
Based on the research, a mid-life crisis can strike no matter what your gender or socioeconomic status is.
Fundamental issues at play
Scientists have also found evidence that people experience mid-life crises in many different countries.
Hannes Schwandt, a postdoctoral research associate at Princeton University’s Center for Health, studied a detailed survey of 23,000 people from several different parts of Germany taken from 1991 to 2004. The survey asked the individuals to report how satisfied they were currently and how satisfied they expected they’d feel five years in the future.
He found a couple of remarkable things: First, younger people had overly optimistic aspirations for their futures. Second, people who were the least satisfied were also the ones who tended to have all the things associated with a desirable life, from high levels of education to a steady jobs.
“They feel ungrateful and disappointed with themselves particularly because their discontent seems so unjustified — which creates a potentially vicious circle,” Schwandt writes.
They feel ungrateful and disappointed with themselves particularly because their discontent seems so unjustified — which creates a potentially vicious circle
The root of the problem, reasons Schwandt, is an overwhelming sense of regret spawned by not meeting one’s own lofty expectations.
There are still a few aspects of a mid-life crisis Schwandt says he doesn’t fully understand. For one, why does the crisis hit people who are all a similar age? Why doesn’t it plague us when we’re retiring in our ’60s or building a career in our ’20s?
“As we age, things often don’t turn out as nicely as we planned,” he writes. “We may not climb up the career ladder as quickly as we wished. Or we do, only to find that prestige and a high income are not as satisfying as we expected them to be.”
The most frightening thing about mid-life crises is they seem to strike without warning, taking people by complete surprise, Schwandt writes.
Overcoming the slump
Schwandt and others have a few suggestions for how to handle a mid-life slump.
“When I give lectures, I say we’re stuck with this, but at least you know it’s completely normal if you’re feeling low in your 40s,” University of Warwick professor of economics Andrew Oswald told The Atlantic’s Jonathan Rauch. “And when you’re low, you blame the wrong things.”
Since this type of mid-life crisis is likely not caused by any single outside source, like a job or a spouse, quitting your job or leaving your long-term partner probably won’t solve anything.
Instead, Schwandt suggests being patient. Take a step back, reassess your personal goals, and embrace the life you’re living.
“The data seems to suggest that if you’re in the throes of a mid-career crisis, maybe you should just wait it out until the U-curve’s upward slope is reached,” Schwandt writes. “This combination of accepting life and feeling less regret about the past is what makes life satisfaction increase again.”
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