If you’re feeling the angst of middle age, take heart. Chances are good that you’ll emerge without resorting to a face-lift, pricey red convertible or fling with someone half your age.
Psychologists have known for decades that the midlife crisis is a myth, at least for most of us. But the idea has been difficult to eradicate from popular culture.
Studies going back 40 years have failed to find proof that people in middle age are predisposed to psychological trauma, said Susan Krauss Whitbourne, a psychology professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Yet, the cliché refuses to die.
“As soon as you think you’ve stomped it out — someone goes and does a TV show,” she said.
There’s no doubt that the middle years come with unique pressures: Children are striking out on their own; aging parents may need more help, and many in middle age start to assess — or reassess — their careers. In fact, there’s a decided dip in happiness and well-being during this time. But most people navigate it and go on to be happier in their later years.
“The middle decades are full of the same-old, same-old: work, marriage, child care,” Whitbourne said.
Still, in a recent study in which she examined people’s sense of meaning in life, those in the 34- to 59-year range reported strong feelings of well-being and satisfaction. Things got even better after age 60.
“There is nothing universal about a midlife crisis,” she said. “It’s an oversimplification.”
Midlife is a vaguely defined time when we leave youth behind and approach old age. Most people perceive it as arriving in the mid-40s or 50s and lasting through the early 60s.
Canadian psychoanalyst Elliott Jaques coined the term “midlife crisis” in 1965 as part of his research on how creative geniuses work as they age. But the credit (or blame) for bringing the term into the popular lexicon goes to Gail Sheehy and her 1976 book, “Passages,” in which she teased out “predictable crises of adult life” decade by decade.
The quintessential midlife crisis is marked by feelings of disillusionment and an overwhelming sense of loss — of one’s health, career, sexual desire, friends and sense of purpose as parenting duties fade.
Popular culture has continued to fan the flames of that supposed loss, with provocative headlines in magazines or movies such as “American Beauty” and “Lost in Translation” that depict a desolate desperation for those in midlife.
Marketers are responsible “to a large degree” for sanctioning the stereotypes, said Mark Nelson, director of analytics at the Minneapolis advertising agency Fallon, critiquing an industry he has worked in for three decades.
“We’re all creatures of enormous bias,” he said. “We’ve all seen the old guy in the sports car. We make assumptions, and it tends to confirm our stereotypes.”
Our youth-obsessed culture also feeds the myth, said Dr. Bill Thomas, a geriatric specialist and founder of New York-based changingaging.org. Those who get through midlife relatively unscathed are able to reframe the period as a time of growth and change, rather than loss.
“A midlife crisis,” he said, “is the consequence of a changing relationship with memories of our younger self.”
Next up: happiness
Mental health professionals worry about the penchant for making light of a midlife meltdown. Not only does it give people an excuse to act out, they say, but it may prevent those who need help from getting it.
An estimated 20 percent of people do experience serious depression in midlife, but experts say most of them showed signs of trauma earlier in life. In other words, reaching midlife doesn’t, on its own, precipitate a crisis.
For those experiencing a run-of-the-mill midlife funk, the U-curve theory of happiness may provide a ray of sunshine.
Developed by economists David Blanchflower and Andrew Oswald in 2008, the idea is that emotional unease in the 40s is temporary, and that a person’s sense of well-being picks up in the mid-50s and continues to rise as we age, particularly among those who are financially secure.
More recent surveys from Harris Poll and Pew Research confirm this pattern, which seems to hold true for men and women midlifers in the United States, Europe, Latin America and Asia. It even shows up in developing economies, where rising income coincides with rising optimism.
That’s what happened to Margie Gardeen.
“My 40s, I didn’t really care for them. My 50s, I really liked. And beyond — even better,” she said.
When she was 50, Gardeen and her husband, David, decided to sell their house in Mahtomedi and head to the Rocky Mountains to ski, hike and immerse themselves in nature.
David had just gotten laid off; their son was at college; both of her parents had died, and David’s mother was ailing. It was something of a whim, she said, but they ended up spending two years in Colorado, finding odd jobs to pay for rent and lift tickets.
More research, less angst
Colorado State University psychologist Michael Steger, who developed a Meaning of Life questionnaire in 2000 as a graduate student at the University of Minnesota, said anxiety about aging often comes from faulty assumptions we make when we’re younger. Life doesn’t always play out that way.
“People have a lot more resources than they thought they did,” he said. “They have more social resources, more emotional resources; they are able to take on challenges with more emotional maturity and distance.”
With a growing body of research on aging and a rising momentum to change the way we talk about it, some say the time may be ripe to kick the notion of the midlife crisis to the curb.
And millennials seem unlikely to take on the notion of a midlife crisis.
“For a boomer, a midlife crisis might be around their achievements: Am I a middle manager who never cracked to the next level?” Nelson said. “I don’t see millennials approaching life that way.
“They’re looking for jobs with meaning, ways they feel like they’re connecting to society. Many are moving horizontally. They have a different way of evaluating where they are in life.
“It’ll be interesting to watch as they hit middle age.”
For Gardeen, her “midlife break” was freeing.
“The word crisis never fit for me, nor anyone I know, really,” said Gardeen, now 62, and living in Golden Valley. “I think different stages of life can provide opportunities for change and trying new things.”