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You’re Not Having a Midlife Crisis, but Here’s the Science Anyway

Economists say they can prove it's real. Psychologists dismiss it out of hand.

The midlife crisis guy is an easily recognizable cultural archetype. Maybe he’s got a big stupid Corvette and a small dumb hat to match his crippling self-doubt. Maybe he’s hitting on a waitress. Maybe he’s letting a marriage dissolve. He’s a pathetic sort of villain facing down a long-deferred personal reckoning with failure and feelings. But he might also be fiction. While researchers are quick to acknowledge that some men do go through an emotional transition in their late forties and fifties, there is by no consensus that this is a specific phenomenon is triggered in consistent ways.

What we think of as the midlife crisis might be, in other words, just a bunch of guys behaving like idiots.

“Yes, there are middle-aged men who do have problems, who do not feel satisfied with their lives,” Alexandra M. Freund, a professor of psychology at the University of Zurich who has studied the midlife crisis debate extensively, told Fatherly. “Is there a midlife crisis — a normative crisis that everybody goes through? No, there’s no empirical evidence for that.”

Virtually all psychologists agree with Freund, and maintain that there is no crisis that arrives on schedule. Their consensus is based largely on an enormous study of middle-aged men conducted by Margie Lachman of Brandeis University in 2004, which found that only 26 percent of participants over age 40 report having a “midlife crisis” and that many of those adults were going through unrelated crises. Economists, on the other hand, say there’s statistical proof for the existence of a midlife crisis. Andrew Oswald of the University of Warwick goes one step further and says he’s got the graphs to prove it. Oswald found a measurable decline in happiness at age 40 among 1.3 million adults in 51 countries then — remarkably and memorably — replicated his findings in bummed-out apes by interviewing zoo-keepers.

“We’re seeing this U-shape, this psychological dip, over and over again,” Oswald told Bloomberg in 2017. “There is definitely a midlife low.” Still, psychologists like Susan Krauss Whitbourne, a professor at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, remains unconvinced. “For the midlife crisis idea to have validity, it should be linked to true midlife … when it’s ‘supposed’ to happen,” she wrote, rather appropriately, in The Huffington Post. “It should also be a true crisis.”

When Is “Midlife” And What Is A “True Crisis”?

Most studies define “midlife” as the middle of adulthood, or around 45 years of age. At this point, the theory goes, adults (especially men) begin to address their own mortalities and that they are unlikely to achieve all of the goals they set when they were younger. This naturally leads to frustration, sadness, disrupted family life, and a good number of ill-advised purchases. A lot of these goals are creepily similar to the dreams of most 18-year-olds, rather than the carefully considered goals we expect from responsible adults — a fast car, an obnoxiously young partner.

“It’s seen as this really profound challenge. You feel like this is not the life you want to be living — you don’t want to die, at some point your physical abilities might decline, this is not what you signed up for,” Freund says. And it often stems from unrealistic expectations. “We’ve all got dreams to be famous pop stars or great writers — and then we realize it’s not going to happen.” But those feelings don’t climb to a crisis until there’s depression and despair. “A crisis is seen as a very strong reaction, where your values, goals, and relationships seem shaky,” Freund adds. And that crisis isn’t a “midlife crisis” unless the average person can expect to feel it around 45.

Does The Average Person Have A Midlife Crisis?

Depends on who you ask. Oswald and his band of economists sure seem convinced. They even claim that humans may be biologically hardwired to go into crisis mode around age 45. “Biology and physiology have to be at the top of a list of possible explanations” for midlife crisis appearing in both apes and humans, Oswald told Live Science in 2012. “Apes don’t have mortgages and divorces and school fees to pay, and all of the paraphernalia of modern life.”

Psychologists beg to differ. “It’s a myth,” Whitbourne writes. “Scientific research shows that most of us go through our middle years without so much as a blip on our psychological radar screens. Surveys, interview studies, personality testing, and mental health screening data fail to reveal that there’s something about the midlife years that leads people inevitably to emotional turmoil.”

But even psychologists agree that there are certain features of midlife that can make personal crises more common. There’s some evidence that we’re most likely to go into crisis mode at turning points — after finishing high school or college, just before starting a family, and before retirement. At these moments we tend to take stock of our accomplishments and, finding ourselves inadequate, panic. The key to ensuring every life change doesn’t turn into a meltdown, Freund says, is to regularly update your goals throughout your life, fine-tuning them as you age.

“There are middle-aged people who sit down for the first time and think back to their goals at 18 and say, ‘Shoot, I didn’t achieve that,'” she says. “One thing that might trigger a midlife crisis is that you realize that more and more doors have closed. For women, it might be children and family. For men, since biology favors them in that regard, it might be professionally.”

Whether Or Not It’s A Crisis, Family Helps

Family is one of the most important building blocks of happy midlife for most Americans, Lachman writes in her seminal work on the subject. She found that middle-aged adults often play multiple roles as partner and parent, and reported that these roles “could have different well-being consequences, depending, for example, on whether or not a parent is in poor health or depending on the age of one’s children,” Lachman writes. “Those who were parents had more psychological distress than the childfree, but also had greater psychological wellness.”

Freund agrees. “In midlife, it seems particularly important to have family,” she says. “This doesn’t mean everyone who doesn’t have kids at midlife is prone for a crisis, but it could contribute if it’s something you always wanted and now you realize it’s too late.”

How To Weather A Midlife Crisis

“Every morning you wake up and don’t know why you should get out of bed; you’re not interested in your health or your friends; this lack of motivation is a sign something is wrong,” Freund says. “If this goes on for more than a brief period of time, you should be concerned.”

And concerns should extend to significant others. One of the problems with the sorts of behaviors that we commonly associate with midlife crises if that they devalue longstanding relationships. To the extent that this forces a reconsideration of the past, the crisis can be contagious. So it’s best to think of it as a something that needs to be contained. If a loved one displays signs of depression and despair, especially if it’s sustained over a long period of time, these cries for help should not be dismissed. Psychological intervention is likely necessary and almost certainly advisable. “Encourage them to see a professional outside of the relationship,” Freund suggests. “As spouses, we’re not equipped to do therapy with our partners. It’s just not a good idea.”

But, in many cases, midlife crisis — whether we assume it’s a statistical certainty or a mere psychological myth — arrives more gently. It’s a sudden urge to pursue fanciful, youthful dreams that may not seem age-appropriate. It makes loved ones scoff but that doesn’t ultimately make it a bad thing. It can be the beginning of a glorious era of not caring what other people think. 

If your so-called crisis isn’t harming you or anyone else, it’s really no one else’s business.“Why shouldn’t middle-aged adults get sports cars?” Freund asks.