THE REAL ROOTS OF MIDLIFE CRISIS – What a growing body of research reveals about the biology of human happiness — and how to navigate the (temporary) slump in middle age.
This summer, a friend called in a state of unhappy perplexity. At age 47, after years of struggling to find security in academia, he had received tenure. Instead of feeling satisfied, however, he felt trapped. He fantasized about escape. His reaction had taken him by surprise. It made no sense. Was there something wrong with him? I gave him the best answer I know. I told him about the U-curve.
Not everyone goes through the U-curve. But many people do, and I did.
Morning after morning (mornings were the worst), I would wake up feeling disappointed, my head buzzing with obsessive thoughts about my failures. I had accomplished too little professionally, had let life pass me by, needed some nameless kind of change or escape. My dissatisfaction was whiny and irrational, as I well knew, so I kept it to myself. When I thought about it, I rejected the term midlife crisis, because I was holding a steady course and never in fact experienced a crisis: more like a constant drizzle of disappointment. What annoyed me most of all, much more than the disappointment itself, was that I felt ungrateful, the last thing in the world I was entitled to be. As the weeks turned into months, and then into years, my image of myself began to change. I seemed to be someone who dwelt on discontents, real or imaginary.
As I moved into my early 50s, I hit some real setbacks. And yet the fog of disappointment and self-censure began to lift, at first almost imperceptibly, then more distinctly. I have begun to feel again the sense of adventure that I recall from my 20s and 30s. I wake up thinking about the day ahead rather than the five decades past. Gratitude has returned. By now, at 54, I feel as if I have emerged from a passage through something. But what?
What I wish I had known in my 40s (or, even better, in my late 30s) is that happiness may be affected by age, and the hard part is in middle age. Whether you call it a midlife crisis or something else, it is for many people a transition to something much better—something, there is reason to hope, like wisdom. I wish someone had told me what I was able to tell my worried friend: nothing was wrong with him, and he wasn’t alone.
In the 1970s, an economist named Richard Easterlin, then at the University of Pennsylvania, learned of surveys gauging people’s happiness in countries around the world. Intrigued, he set about amassing and analyzing the data, in the process discovering what came to be known as the Easterlin paradox: beyond a certain point, countries don’t get happier as they get richer. Today he is at the University of Southern California and is celebrated as the founder of a new branch of economics focused on human well-being. At the time, though, looking at something as subjective as happiness seemed eccentric to mainstream economists. His findings were for many years regarded as a curiosity, more a subject for cocktail conversation than for serious research.
A generation later, in the 1990s, happiness economics resurfaced. This time a cluster of labor economists, among them David Blanchflower of Dartmouth and Andrew Oswald of the University of Warwick, got interested in the relationship between work and happiness.
International surveys of life satisfaction show a recurrent pattern in countries around the world. No matter what sets of data you looked at, you get the same things: life satisfaction would decline with age for the first couple of decades of adulthood, bottom out somewhere in the 40s or early 50s, and then, until the very last years, increase with age, often (though not always) reaching a higher level than in young adulthood. The pattern came to be known as the happiness U-curve.
Looking at Peruvians who had emerged rapidly from poverty, objective life circumstances did not determine subjective life satisfaction; in Peru, as in other countries, many people who had moved out of poverty felt worse off than those who had stayed poor. Survey data find the same U-shaped pattern, first in Latin America and then in the rest of the world. It is a statistical regularity, something about the human condition.
The U-curve emerges in answers to survey questions that measure satisfaction with life as a whole, not mood from moment to moment. The exact shape of the curve, and the age when it bottoms out, vary by country, survey question, survey population, and method of statistical analysis. The U-curve is not ubiquitous; indeed, one would be suspicious if a single pattern turned up across an immensely variegated landscape of surveys and countries and generations and analyses. Still, the pattern turns up much too often to ignore. For example, in a 2008 study, the U-curve was found—with the nadir, on average, at age 46—in 55 of 80 countries where people were asked, “All things considered, how satisfied are you with your life as a whole these days?” A recent international survey asked people in 149 countries to rate their lives on a zero-to-10 scale where 10 “represents the best possible life for you” and zero the worst. They found a relationship between age and happiness in 80 countries, and in all but nine of those, satisfaction bottomed out between the ages of 39 and 57 (the average nadir was at about age 50).
The curve tends to evince itself more in wealthier countries, where people live longer and enjoy better health in old age. Sometimes it turns up directly in raw survey data—that is, people just express less overall satisfaction in middle age. But here’s a wrinkle: in many cases, the age-based U-curve emerges only after researchers adjust for such variables as income, marital status, employment, and so on, thus looking through to the effects of age alone. Some scholars take a dim view of making such adjustments. To some, that’s how you obscure the story; that’s not how you clean it up. But filtering out important life circumstances suggests something intriguing: there may be an underlying pattern in life satisfaction that is independent of your situation. In other words, if all else is equal, it may be more difficult to feel satisfied with your life in middle age than at other times. Statistically speaking, going from age 20 to age 45 entails a loss of happiness equivalent to one-third the effect of involuntary unemployment.
Many psychologists have their doubts, partly because the U-curve is a statistical regularity that emerges from large data sets, and psychologists prefer to study actual people, whether individually or in experimental groups, and ideally across their whole lives. In the final analysis, you’re not talking about real people when you tell these big, generic stories. Heretofore, when psychologists have gone looking for evidence of midlife crisis—that is, of a distinctive phenomenon of middle age, rather than just stress or difficulty that might come at any point in life—they haven’t found it, and they are cool to the possibility that the smoking gun has turned up in economics, of all places.
In recent work, however, U-curve researchers have begun to find evidence that is harder to dismiss as mere statistical correlation. They have found the U-curve in four longitudinal data sets from three countries: an important kind of evidence, because it traces the lived experiences of individuals over time, rather than comparing people of various ages in a statistical snapshot. Likewise, looking at samples from 27 European countries, they have found a “strong hill-shaped pattern” in the use of antidepressants, peaking in people’s late 40s. Being middle-aged “nearly doubles” a person’s likelihood of using antidepressants. The same pattern appears, they’ve found, in the two U.S. states that collect the relevant data (New Hampshire and New Mexico).
Five scholars, including two primatologists, found a U-shaped curve in chimpanzees’ and orangutans’ state of mind over time. Zookeepers, researchers, and other animal caretakers filled out a questionnaire rating the well-being of their primate charges (more than 500 captive chimps and orangutans in Australia, Canada, Japan, Singapore, and the United States). The apes’ well-being bottomed out at ages comparable, in people, to between 45 and 50. The results imply that human wellbeing’s curved shape is not uniquely human and that, although 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.
Where the evidence points is this: being satisfied is perfectly possible in midlife, but for a great many of us it is harder. That is how the U-curve feels – the 20s are exciting and fun (“I was really dumb but thought I knew a lot”), the 30s were a time of hard work and steady rewards (“I felt on track … Things looked like white picket fences and the American dream”), but many are bushwhacked in their 40s by an unexpected divorce, unmarried fatherhood, and a heart attack. They have difficulty feeling contentment, leading to self-doubt: a creeping suspicion that is fated to be whiny. One wonders whether their dissatisfaction has been a cause of some of their problems, not just an effect.
As things turned upward, on a day-to-day basis, they probably do the same things, but feel different. Values shift away from work: maybe that was not going to be a big source of achievement. They measure their worth now by how they can help others and contribute to the community. They enjoy the relationships that they’ve been able to nurture over these years—longer-term friends, growing with those friends. It was always striving and looking ahead, as opposed to being in the now and feeling grateful for the now. They feel a great gratitude. When in a situation when they can moan a little bit or feel bad about some of the difficult things that have happened, the balance sheet is hugely on the side of all the great things that have happened. Gratitude helps them be both more satisfied and more giving
It turns out that there is good science about this gift: studies show quite strongly that people’s satisfaction with their life increases, on average, from their early 50s on through their 60s and 70s and even beyond—for many until disability and final illness exact their toll toward the very end (at which point it’s hard to generalize). The peak of emotional life may not occur until well into the seventh decade—a finding that is often met with disbelief in both the general population and the research community,” despite its strength.
Of course, the most interesting question, and unfortunately also the hardest question, is: Why is happiness so often U-shaped? Why the common dissatisfaction in middle age? And why the upswing afterward?
Part of the answer likely involves what researchers call selection bias: unhappier people tend to die sooner, removing themselves from the sample. Also, of course, middle age is often a stressful time, burdened with simultaneous demands from jobs, kids, and aging parents. Those explanations don’t seem adequate by themselves, though. The U-curve often emerges after adjusting for other variables in life (children, income, job, marriage), so it is not purely situational.
As people age and time horizons grow shorter, people invest in what is most important, typically meaningful relationships, and derive increasingly greater satisfaction from these investments. Midlife is, for many people, a time of recalibration, when they begin to evaluate their lives less in terms of social competition and more in terms of social connectedness. In your 40s, you may obsessively compare your life with other people’s: scoring and judging yourself, and counting up the ways in which you have fallen behind in a race. In your 50s, you find yourself more inclined to prize and enjoy people and relationships, which mercifully seem to be pushing the unwinnable status competition into the background. Also, when the future becomes less distant, more constrained, people focus on the present, and it’s thought that’s better for emotional experience. The goals that are chronically activated in old age are ones about meaning and savoring and living for the moment. You became more accepting of your limitations. Goals, because they’re set in temporal context, change systematically with age. As people perceive the future as increasingly constrained, they set goals that are more realistic and easy to pursue. The expectation of scaling ever greater heights has faded, and with it the sense of disappointment and failure.
The idea that the expectations gap closes with age has recently received some empirical backing. A German longitudinal survey, with data from 1991 to 2004, that, unusually, asked people about both their current life satisfaction and their expected satisfaction five years hence. That allows you to compare expectations with subsequent reality for the same individuals over time. They found the same result regardless of respondents’ economic status, generation, and even whether they lived in western or eastern Germany (two very different cultures): younger people consistently and markedly overestimated how satisfied they would be five years later, while older people underestimated future satisfaction. So youth is a period of perpetual disappointment, and older adulthood is a period of pleasant surprise. What’s more, in between those two periods, during middle age, people experienced a sort of double whammy: satisfaction with life was declining (that’s the U-curve, which manifested itself clearly), but expectations were also by then declining (in fact, they were declining even faster than satisfaction itself). In other words, middle-aged people tend to feel both disappointed and pessimistic, a recipe for misery. Eventually, however, expectations stop declining. They settle at a lower level than in youth, and reality begins exceeding them. Surprises turn predominantly positive, and life satisfaction swings upward. The crossover happens about where you would expect: in the 50s.
This finding supports the hypothesis that the age U-shape in life satisfaction is driven by unmet aspirations that are painfully felt during midlife but beneficially abandoned and felt with less regret during old age.
Okay, but why does this abandonment and reorientation seem to happen so reliably in midlife? Firm explanations are some years away. Still, clues have emerged from the realm of brain science, and they hint at an answer that is both heartening and ancient.
Dilip V. Jeste is a distinguished psychiatrist at the University of California at San Diego, and believes that wisdom is a concept that belongs to cutting-edge neuroscience. He and his colleagues use magnetic-scanning technology and batteries of psychological tests to peer into the brain for clues to how the mind and emotions work. Studying elderly schizophrenics, he was startled to find that they did better as they aged. That led him to explore how people can age successfully—that is, happily—despite health problems and other adverse circumstances. People feel better, not worse, about their lives as they move through their later decades, even with the onset of chronic health problems that would lead one to expect distress or depression. Is there anything cognitive that actually improves with aging? This led him to think about wisdom and wondering whether the life satisfaction in older people was related to their becoming wiser with age, in spite of physical disability.
The concept of wisdom has stayed “surprisingly similar” across centuries and across geographic regions. The traits of the wise tend to include compassion and empathy, good social reasoning and decision making, equanimity, tolerance of divergent values, comfort with uncertainty and ambiguity. And the whole package is more than the sum of the parts, because these traits work together to improve life not only for the wise but also for their communities. Wisdom is pro-social. Humans live for an unusually long time after their fertile years; perhaps wisdom provides benefits to our children or our social groups that make older people worth keeping around, from an evolutionary perspective. Wisdom is useful at any age. From an evolutionary point of view, younger people are fertile, so even if they’re not wise, they’re okay. But older people need to find some other way that they can contribute to the survival of the species. Competitiveness may be more favored in the young, and more emotional regulation, more tolerance of diversity, more insight, in older people. The very universality of the concept of wisdom suggests some biological basis. Which is why he’s seeking wisdom’s roots in the brain.
The peak of emotional life may not occur until well into the seventh decade.
They conducted brain-imaging experiments to learn how older people process tasks related to compassion—an element of wisdom. Outfitted with earplugs, a head-mounted optical device to see projected images, a “button box” to respond to the image, and a panic button to stop the experiment, a functional-MRI was done while performing tasks designed to stimulate both cognitive and emotional centers—remembering letters, matching facial expressions—while computers recorded images of the brain at work. This was followed by half an hour in front of a laptop as a postdoctoral researcher conducted a standardized empathy test, showing photos—some images benign, some upsetting—and recording reactions. Finally came an interview with a clinician. Did they consider themselves a wise person? Sometimes—more so when they had time to reflect than when in a crisis. Had their wisdom increased with age? Yes, definitely. Had that made a difference? Yes again; they had learned not to act so precipitously, and they were better at seeing the best in others, even if it didn’t show on the surface. All of this information is collated with results from dozens of other subjects and combed for insights into the neurology of compassion in older people and, in turn, will add a tile to the wisdom mosaic.
The science of wisdom is in its infancy, and as of now there is no evidence that people get wiser as a result of aging per se (as opposed to learning from experience over time—also, of course, an element of wisdom). And there is no “wisdom organ” in the brain. Wisdom is an inherently multifarious trait, an emergent property of many other functions. (A psychological screening test for wisdom contains 39 quite diverse questions, although work is being done on reducing the number to a more manageable dozen or so.)
But it does look likely that some elements of aging are conducive to wisdom, and to greater life satisfaction. A German study using brain scans and other physical tests of mental and emotional activity, found that healthy older people (average age: 66) have “a reduced regret responsiveness” compared with younger people (average age: 25). That is, older people are less prone to feel unhappy about things they can’t change—an attitude consistent, of course, with ancient traditions that see stoicism and calm as part of wisdom. In fact, it is well established that older people’s brains react less strongly to negative stimuli than younger people’s brains do. Young people just have more negative feelings. Older brains may thus be less susceptible to the furies that buffet us earlier in life. Young people are miserable at regulating their emotions.”Years ago, my father made much the same point when I asked him why in his 50s he stopped having rages, which had shadowed his younger years and disrupted our family: “I realized I didn’t need to have five-dollar reactions to nickel provocations.”
Other studies find that social reasoning and long-term decision making improve with age; that spirituality increases (especially among women); that older adults feel more comfortable coping with uncertainty and ambiguity. Particularly intriguing are findings suggesting that older people compensate for deterioration in specific regions of the brain by recruiting additional neural networks in other regions—an increase in so-called neuroplasticity that compensates for cognitive decline and perhaps brings other benefits. Brain circuits linked to rewards lose some sensitivity with age, possibly reducing impulsivity and addictive tendencies.
None of this, again, proves that people automatically get wiser with age (or more satisfied, or more calm, or more grateful). Many young people are wise, and many old people are not. It does hint, however, that aging changes us in ways that make it easier to be wise (and satisfied, and calm, and grateful). It suggests the need to rethink the meaning of midlife.
The larger significance of the U-curve is not scientific or medical at all, but cultural. The U-curve offers an opportunity for society to tell a different and better story about life in middle age and beyond: a story that is more accurate and more forgiving and much less embarrassing and lonely.
The idea of a midlife crisis as such is quite recent, first appearing in 1965, in an article by the late psychologist Elliott Jaques. In 1974, in her best-selling book Passages: Predictable Crises of Adult Life, Gail Sheehy depicted midlife crisis with the example of a 40-year-old man who has reached his professional goal but feels depressed and unappreciated. He blames his job or his wife or his physical surroundings for imprisoning him in this rut. Fantasies of breaking out begin to dominate his thoughts. An interesting woman he has met, another field of work, an Elysian part of the country—any or all of these become magnets for his wishes of deliverance. But once these objects of desire become accessible, the picture often begins to reverse itself. The new situation appears to be the dangerous trap from which he longs to take flight by returning to his old home base and the wife and children whose loss suddenly makes them dear.
No wonder many wives stand aghast.
The element of disapproval that creeps in as wives stand aghast, but society stands aghast, too. Almost as soon as it was born, the social narrative of midlife crisis took on connotations of irresponsibility, escapism, self-indulgence, antisocial behavior. About a quarter of Americans reported experiencing a midlife crisis, and that many who disclaimed the notion regarded midlife crisis as a lame excuse for behaving immaturely. The term crisis also contributes to the stigma, because it suggests a shock or disruption or loss of control, when the evidence points to something much more like an extended and unpleasant but manageable downturn.
The story of the U-curve tells an emotionally fairer and more accurate tale. It is a story not of chaos or disruption but of a difficult yet natural transition to a new equilibrium. When telling troubled middle-aged people about it, their reaction is one of relief. Just knowing that the phenomenon is common can be therapeutic. If more people understood how common the U-shaped pattern is, they might be less inclined to make the forecasting errors that contribute to disappointment—and also less inclined to judge themselves harshly for feeling disappointed.
You know it’s completely normal if you’re feeling low in your 40s, and when you’re low, you blame the wrong things. People thrash around for explanations, which can lead to attribution errors and bad decisions. And those, of course, can bring on what really is a stereotypical midlife crisis, complete with lurching change and ill-judged behavior. Better judgment and friends hopefully stop one from acting on what would have been a useless and self-destructive whim. Still, in hindsight, it would have been better to be forewarned that the U-curve was the likely source of discontent, and that a lot of other people, and possibly also a lot of other primates, were in the same boat.
Science has a great deal to learn about the intersection of aging and happiness. It is not too early to begin spreading the word about the U-curve. Tell people in their 30s and 40s that nothing is written in stone, and that they may sail through midlife in grand emotional style—but if not, they aren’t alone, and usually it gets better, so march through it and don’t do anything stupid.