The continued use of the term “midlife crisis” by the media fails the test of scientific merit, as shown by decades of research on personality, well-being, health, and relationships in the decades of the 40s and 50s. People become unhappy between 35 and 60, according to this common characterization of midlife, due to a universal malfunction of your inner mental clock. Never mind that the term “midlife” is inherently vague or that the so-called “crisis” may be nothing more than your feeling pressured by the many demands of your busy life. If you can explain your feelings by this broad, sweeping term, then you can at least rest assured that it happens to everyone and will pass if you just hang in there and wait until you’re in your 60s.
Adding to the unfortunate misuse of the term midlife crisis as an explanation of personality development is the fact that it seems to be a luxury that only some people living in Western, English-speaking, and developed countries can afford, according to economic research on world happiness levels. Furthermore, their unhappiness, such as it is, only shows up as a minor blip on satisfaction rating scales. The worst case scenario, in these studies, involves less than a 1-point difference on a 10 or 11 point scale. Again, this fact is usually ignored in popular characterizations of midlife.
With this background, it’s particularly intriguing to wonder why the most recent entry into the midlife debate now introduces yet another overgeneralizing pop term to define that 25-year swath of life between 40 and 65. In a recent CBS This Morning episode, life coach Barbara Waxman suggests that the term “middlescence” should replace midlife crisis. A second adolescence, but with wisdom, the middlescence supposedly occurs due to biological changes that are the reverse of the ones that occur in people’s teenage years. You question your life, Waxman proposes, the same way you did in adolescence, but now you know more so your ability to evaluate your future should occur in a more informed manner. CBS was so entranced with this concept that they scrolled “The Wonder Years” at the bottom of the screen during the entirety of the segment.
Waxman speaks largely from personal reflection, so how well do her ideas measure up to the latest research? Is her idea in fact an improvement over its predecessor? A 2018 study by Clark University’s Jeffrey Arnett (2018) concludes that midlife well-being presents a complex situation with no one clear pathway through those supposed “wonder years.” Arnett summarizes the criticisms launched by other psychologists and economists of the supposed “U-shaped” happiness curve in that the studies used to justify it are based on single-item happiness measures, produce statistically small effect sizes, and fail to take into account possible contributors such as education, income, marital status, and presence of children in the home. More to the point of midlife’s complexity, there are contradictory studies that report the opposite of a U-shaped happiness curve.
Although one study alone can’t settle the debate for good, nor does it claim to, Arnett based his research on two new approaches in which he looks at midlife happiness from a more nuanced perspective. Instead of just asking participants to rate their overall happiness, Arnett asked the midlife adults in his sample to rate their well-being “at this time of my life.” This form of “evaluative well-being,” Arnett notes, allows people to reflect “broadly about the period of life they are in.” Second, participants rated their lives on dimensions not formerly tapped in well-being surveys, including “whether they view their current lives as a time of freedom or believe that they are at a time of life when anything is still possible” (p. 272). Adding further depth to the questions posed to participants, Arnett also asked questions about “sources of enjoyment” and “sources of stress.” In other words, participants were asked to reflect on their lives in a way that captures the everyday questions that people might have of themselves rather than to summarize in an all-or-nothing manner whether they are a “7” or a “4” on a 10-point happiness scales. Before you go on to the study, think about how you would answer such questions. Do you feel that you can, in fact, rate your happiness with a single digit or do these items seem better at capturing your well-being?
The 834 adults ranging from 40 to 60 (average age 51.9 years) who participated in Arnett’s study came from a randomly drawn U.S. online panel, with a nearly 50-50 split in gender. Most (71%) were married and white (72%), and they represented a range of social classes. All were parents, as they were initially drawn from a parents of university students, but as Arnett points out, so are most midlife adults in the U.S.
As the findings revealed, the majority (82%) of participants stated that they were, in fact, satisfied with their lives overall. Most (77%) felt that anything is possible, that there are changes going on in their lives now (77%), that life is fun and exciting (71%), and that they have a good deal of freedom (71%). Rather than feeling that they’re going through a second adolescence, as Waxman claimed, only about half (55%) felt that they were engaged in a search to find out “who I really am,” or that “this is a time of life for focusing on myself (56%). Unlike that U-shaped happiness curve claim, only a minority felt anxious (39%), that their lives were not going well (27%) or that they were depressed (25%). These latter numbers would fit with what epidemiological studies show about mental health in general for adults in this age range.
Now on to what they enjoy in life. Would you be surprised, based on all the presumed negatively qualities of “millennials,” that these parents actually enjoyed their relationships with their 18-29 year old children? In fact, the large majority (88%) did like their kids and being with them. Other sources of enjoyment included hobbies (86%), travel or holidays (82%), watching television (80%), their relationship with their spouse or partner (75%), and for almost as many, their pets (63%). About one-third enjoyed their relationships with their grandchildren, about half liked their work, and many (62%) enjoyed their in-laws and even exercising (62%).
The largest sources of stress, and none topped 62%, were the flip side of the sources of enjoyment (i.e. family, work, and relationships). Even so, rather than being victims of the supposed “sandwich generation” (another myth of midlife), only 25% mentioned as sources of stress caring for parents, in-laws, or their spouse. None of the usual suspects, then, seemed to detract from this sample’s overall sense that life is both good and bad, but more good than bad.
As Arnett concludes, “There was little support in this study for the claim that midlife is a slough of despond[ency] to be glumly endured between the happier periods of early adulthood and late adulthood” (pp. 275-276). However, he notes further that “the experience of midlife is complex” (p. 276) and not all is completely rosy for everyone. Midlife adults derive pleasure from even the mundane activity of watching television but they also enjoy their close relationships. Work and financial stress, and occasional bouts of sadness and anxiety occur as well, but not to an overwhelming degree.
To sum up, Arnett’s findings suggest midlife is a period of “happy stress” but it is also not a period that people navigate universally. Some look for meaning and excitement, to be sure, but it is not a period in which one size fits all. Finding fulfillment in midlife, as in any period of life, involves a balancing act between managing stress and happiness, a process that is ever-changing over time.
Arnett, J. J. (2018). Happily stressed: The complexity of well-being in midlife. Journal of Adult Development, 25(4), 270–278. doi: 10.1007/s10804-018-9291-3