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.
When it hits
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.
In another study, published in 2010, 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 asked them to report their well-being (WB) on a 10-point scale (10 being the most positive) using a series of questions that queried about their level of satisfaction with various parts of their lives, from standard of living to their community, job, relationships, and personal health.
The researchers found data to suggest that people who are nearing their 40s experience a lower sense of life satisfaction than those who are ageing past their 50s. That means if you haven’t hit 40 yet, then you might be on a downward spiral, but the good news is that it won’t last forever.
Fundamental issues at play
Scientists have also found evidence that mid-lid life crises transcend cultures and countries.
For example, 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 discovered 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.
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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