The Two Choices That Keep a Midlife Crisis at Bay

Middle age is an opportunity to find transcendence.

Illustration of a woman reading on a beach inside an hourglass
Jan Buchczik
A smiley face

How to Build a Lifeis a weekly column by Arthur Brooks, tackling questions of meaning and happiness. Click here to listen to his podcast series on all things happiness, How to Build a Happy Life.

The dirty secret of social scientists is that a lot of research is actually “me-search.” Many of us tend to study aspects of life that affect us personally, looking for solutions to our own issues. In that spirit, I celebrated my 58th birthday last week not with a toupee or red sports car, but rather by investigating how to have the best possible midlife crisis.

The midlife-crisis phenomenon has taken on almost mythic proportions in the American psyche over the past century. The term was first coined by the Canadian psychoanalyst Elliott Jaques, who noticed a pattern in the lives of “great men” in history: Many of them lost productivity—and even died—in their mid-to-late-30s, which was midlife in past centuries. The idea entered the popular consciousness in the 1970s when the author Gail Sheehy wrote her mega–best seller Passages: Predictable Crises of Adult Life. Sheehy argued that around the age of 40, both men and women tend to descend into a crisis about getting old, running out of time to meet their goals, and questioning life choices. She based her work on in-depth case interviews with 115 individuals, the most famous of whom was the auto entrepreneur John DeLorean. He went on to become infamous in 1982, when, at the age of 57, he was arrested for attempting to sell about 60 pounds of cocaine to undercover federal agents.

For years, scholars mostly didn’t challenge the conventional wisdom that a traumatic midlife crisis was normal, if not inevitable. More recently, however, many have found that a “crisis” is not our unavoidable fate. With knowledge and effort, you (and I) can make two crucial choices that can lead to harnessing the changes and difficulties of aging to instead design a midlife transcendence.

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The timing of midlife is very subjective. As the psychologist Daniel J. Levinson aptly defined it 30 years ago (and as others have since validated), middle age is when “one is no longer young and yet not quite old.” This leaves a lot of room for perception. In a 2000 survey by the National Council on Aging, nearly half of the respondents ages 65 and older considered themselves middle-aged, as did a third of Americans in their 70s. For me, 58 feels just about right: My life-insurance company tells me that I can expect to live to 98, given my health and personal habits. I started my adult life at 19, when I left school and started working full-time. So the halfway point of adulthood for me is 58.5.

Whether it becomes a crisis or not, midlife is indeed a difficult time for many. One common reason is what psychologists have called “sandwiching”: As you raise your kids, you are also saddled with the care of aging parents. According to findings from the 1995 National Survey of Families and Households, about 40 percent of people in their early 40s have both parents alive; about 80 percent of people in their late 60s have no parents alive. During the intervening years, adults spend an average of 2.5 hours a day in unpaid care of a family member. The burden of caregiving can be even more overwhelming for those with little time or limited financial resources.

These challenges are compounded by a strange and very personal shift that starts around your 40s: The skills you honed in early adulthood start to wane. If you don’t focus on the abilities that grow as you get older, you might perceive aging as an unmitigated loss, which will be a source of suffering. But you can work to avoid that fate by making two wise decisions about how to think about midlife.

The first decision: Choose to focus on what age gives you, not what it has taken away. The developmental psychologist Erik Erikson believed that midlife presents a crossroads with two paths forward, which he called generativity and stagnation. My own research bears this out, and shows that the path you take is largely up to you. Stagnation, which can lead to a crisis, happens when you try to fight against time, whether you’re desperately trying not to look older or struggling against changes in your skills and strengths. Generativity comes from accepting your age and recognizing the new aptitudes and abilities that naturally develop after age 40 and get stronger through your 50s and 60s. These include the growing ability to see patterns clearly, teach others, and explain complex ideas—what psychologists call “crystallized intelligence.”

The second decision: Choose subtraction, not addition. Early in life, success usually comes from addition: more money, more responsibility, more relationships, more possessions. Life in early adulthood is like filling up an empty canvas. By midlife, however, that canvas is pretty full, and more brushstrokes make the painting worse, not better. This explains why studies find that the most common concerns reported by middle-aged adults involve getting everything done in their busy life, their energy level, job complications, and insufficient sleep.

Midlife is the point at which your medium of choice should change from a canvas to a sculpture, in which the work of art appears as a result of chipping away, not adding. This is hard to do when you have accepted a lot of responsibilities at work and at home. But I have found that in many cases, the most important impediment to chipping away is a belief that success = more. In middle age, this is bad math. Work to change your objective by stepping away from voluntary duties and responsibilities, and making more time to think, read, love, and pray—the work that you need to do to reengineer you.

You can take these steps on your own if you want, or get assistance from the growing number of organizations designed to help you along this path, such as the entrepreneur Chip Conley’s Modern Elder Academy or my own university’s Advanced Leadership Initiative, two programs I have personally participated in. But even if you do nothing at all, a terrible “crisis” is hardly inevitable, nor even especially likely for most people. Writing in the journal Motivation and Emotion in 2000, the Cornell sociologist Elaine Wethington found that 90 percent of Americans are familiar with the idea of the midlife crisis and describe it pretty accurately from a psychological standpoint. But only 15.5 percent of men and 13.3 percent of women reported suffering one.

In fact, for most people, life gets better starting in middle age. Over the years, people tend to get happier, more creative, less neurotic, more agreeable, and more conscientious. On average, research suggests that people get steadily psychologically healthier after 30, and well into old age. Most likely, there will be no full-blown crisis even if you just let nature take its course. Pursuing generativity and subtraction will make the second half of life that much better.

Looking for joy in middle age might sound like putting lipstick on a pig, looking for a few scraps of happiness in an obviously unhappy period of life. But midlife is not a pig (unless you like pigs), and no lipstick is necessary. You will inevitably face hardships and challenges, just like at any other point in your life. But if you make the right choices, midlife may just be the best opportunity and biggest adventure you have had in decades.

By Daniel Jacob Levinson

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