Renegotiating midlife

June 20th, 2016

Rethinking midlife

In her recent book Life Reimagined: The Science, Art, and Opportunity of Midlife, Barbara Bradley Hagerty asks readers to rethink the “midlife crisis.” Proposed by psychoanalyst Elliott Jaques in 1965 and popularized by journalist Gail Sheehy in her 1976 bestseller Passages: Predictable Crises of Adult Life, the midlife crisis has entrenched itself in the popular imagination. The phrase is shorthand for the anxiety people supposedly face when mortality confronts them and they realize (in an image attributed to Joseph Campbell) the ladder they’ve been climbing their whole lives is leaning against the wrong wall.

But as Hagerty points out in an interview to promote her book, researchers from the 1990s on have failed to find evidence of a “common or inevitable midlife crisis,” and as few as 10 percent of men actually suffer this “existential angst about aging.” She encourages readers to reframe midlife as a time marked by “optimism and renewal, happiness and growth.”

According to the psalm-singer, “The days of our life are seventy years, or perhaps eighty, if we are strong” (Psalm 90:10, NRSV). This biblical estimate’s upper limit is now the average American life expectancy — 78.8 years, reports the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And a Pew Research report in 2009 found that 79 percent of Americans say “old age” begins at 85. Our lengthening lifespans demand we reconsider what “midlife” means, as well as what to expect from and make of it.

Midlife markers

Midlife confronts us with many changes. Some of the most obvious are physical. Our bodies start showing the wear and tear of being alive, from graying hair to creeping weight gain. We can choose — as my doctor said when I visited for a checkup around my 40th birthday — to see midlife as the time “when our bodies begin to betray us.” 

Midlife also brings mental changes. Our fluid intelligence — our capacity to recognize new patterns and solve new problems — peaks in our 20s. “Certain capabilities fall off as you approach 50,” writes Patricia Cohen, author of In Our Prime: The Invention of Middle Age, in The New York Times. “Memories of where you left the keys or parked the car mysteriously vanish. Words suddenly go into hiding as you struggle to remember the guy, you know, in that movie, what was it called? And calculating the tip on your dinner check seems to take longer than it used to.”

Emotional challenges also confront many people during midlife. Parents may die. Children may move away. Jobs may end. Spouses may leave. No one’s circumstances remain exactly the same through life, and significant life changes naturally create stress. But does midlife stress constitute a “crisis” or something less perilous and more promising?

The U-curve

While true crises seem rare, midlife’s physical, mental and emotional changes often do breed dissatisfaction. As Hagerty says, “Midlife ennui — that flat feeling, that perpetual question: is this all there is? — that feeling is practically universal.”

In the 1990s, economists researching correlations between work and happiness discovered a recurring, worldwide pattern. Journalist Jonathan Rauch summarized the findings for The Atlantic: “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.”

The U-curve doesn’t describe everyone’s experience. In low-income nations, for example, people tend to remain dissatisfied throughout life. But the curve has manifested itself frequently enough that it may provide some comfort to people who feel frustrated or disappointed during their middle years. Some midlife unhappiness may simply be, as economist Carol Graham calls it, “a statistical regularity. Something about the human condition.” Whether we experience it as a “crisis” may be mostly up to us.

‘True Adulthood’

In a 2012 British survey, almost one in five respondents said, “Being middle age is a state of mind.” Such sentiment mirrors growing consensus among experts that the concept of midlife, despite real changes in the middle years, is not a helpful social construct.

As do many mental health professionals, psychotherapist Douglas LaBier, Ph.D., writing for Psychology Today’s website, suggests instead that people “think of a broad period of true adulthood”: a span of several decades, beginning in the 30s, in which “men and women face a range of truly adult challenges” and “grapple with the challenge to ‘evolve’ into a fully adult human — emotionally, creatively, relationally, and spiritually.”

This perspective enlarges rather than restricts our present and future. We can treat the middle years’ changes and challenges not as “midlife crises” to impulsively indulge or passively endure, but rather as opportunities for growth:

  • We can acknowledge our physical limitations without resigning ourselves to decay. “Studies show that while there is some drop in muscle mass as you age,” Hagerty wrote for NPR, “you can slow those changes to a crawl by getting your heart rate up a few times a week.” 
  • We can admit our fluid intelligence flows less freely but take confidence knowing our crystallized intelligence — our ability to solve new problems by applying old, learned knowledge — can keep growing into our 70s. Older adults possess “a wealth of experiences that tend to support superior reasoning and judgment abilities,” writes University of Minnesota assistant professor David Crawford, “if given time to think and reflect on the learning activity.” 
  • We can use the life changes we experience to refine or even reinvent our sense of self. Marriage and family therapist Joan Sherman writes about counseling a woman who spent a week sleeping and crying when her children left home for college. “You’re not losing your identity,” Sherman told her. “You have an opportunity to create a new one.” In consultation with a college career center, the woman began to explore doing just that. 

Maturing in wisdom and years

According to author, speaker, and leadership development coach Amy Kay Watson, “Most North Americans reaching midlife (or later) would rather pursue a scenario in which they own their choices more than they’ve been doing. That doesn’t mean reverting to the impulses and desires of a 17 year old … The adults I have worked with far prefer to get clear on their personal values and start making sure those are present in their lives.”

The quest to clarify values and fully own one’s choices strikes me as a way of living wisely. Several authors suggest wisdom is the goal of the middle years. New York Times columnist David Brooks, for instance, views midlife as “the moment when you can look back on your life so far and see it with different eyes … You might have enough clarity by now to orient your life around a true north on some ultimate horizon.”

For Christians, the call of midlife is a particular expression of the general call God always sounds: to mature “in wisdom and years, and in favor with God and with people,” as Jesus did (Luke 2:52). Jesus saw with clarity the horizon to which his values and choices would lead. While few, if any, of us will find our midlife journeys leading toward self-sacrificial physical death, we may need to sacrifice long-held ideas about who we are and what we are supposed to do. Like the single grain of wheat falling to the ground (John 12:24), we may need to “die” in order to live wisely and well for the days of this life we have left. May the psalm-singer’s prayer be ours, in midlife and always: “Teach us to number our days so we can have a wise heart” (Psalm 90:12).

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