The stereotypical midlife crisis sees a 40 or 50 year old man, unsatisfied with his life, do something wildly uncharacteristic, like buy a sports car or leave his wife. Research shows that the midlife crisis is more than just a cliche or series of anecdotes.
There’s a U-shaped relationship between age and happiness, and it reaches its lowest point around midlife. That trend is unaffected by a range of economic and social differences. Gender and having young children don’t change the trajectory either.
That indicates that there’s more to it than social or economic forces. New research from Alexander Weiss at the University of Edinburgh, James King of the University of Arizona, and a number of co-authors, takes a look at great apes, our closest relatives, to see how innate the midlife crisis is.
Even chimpanzees and orangutans have the U-shaped relationship, and a reach low point in the middle of their lives. The authors write in the abstract:
In this study we show that a similar U-shape exists in 508 great apes (two samples of chimpanzees and one sample of orangutans) whose well-being was assessed by keepers familiar with the individual apes. This U-shaped pattern or ‘midlife crisis’ emerges with or without use of parametric methods. Our results imply that human well-being’s curved shape is not uniquely human and that, while it may be partly explained by aspects of human life and society, its origins may lie partly in the biology we share with closely related great apes.
They offer a few possible explanations for the shared trend, including a link between and happiness and longevity in both species, and age related changes in the brain.
For those that hope to avoid the midlife crisis, one explanation offers some hope. Older members of all three species rely on specific behavioural tools to become happier. “They may seek out situations and group members that elicit more positive emotions,” the authors write, “or shift to goals that are more attainable in older age.”
Here’s a chart of age relative to well being for the samples in the study:
[credit provider=”Alexander Weiss et al.” url=”http://ftp.iza.org/dp7009.pdf”]