Mid-Life Crisis No Joke But Happiness Can Return

We have all joked about adults having a “mid-life crisis” when men of a certain age splurge on a muscle car, or start dating a much younger woman.  Impulsive behaviour, typical of a mid-life crisis, is not limited to men, and women too may make drastic changes in appearance or behaviour, reminisce about the past, or struggle with feeling unfulfilled in life.  New research has found crises that typically emerge in people’s 40s and resolve in their 50s are no joking matter and should be taken seriously. 

According to a recent New York Times newsletter, a working paper released this month by the National Bureau of Economic Research presents evidence that midlife is a time when people more frequently report problems sleeping, forgetfulness, difficulty concentrating, and feeling unworthy or overwhelmed. Middle-agers may also become dependent on alcohol, have thoughts of suicide, episodes of depression or disabling headaches.

While we may blame the stresses of marriage, raising children, and work-related pressures, government data and prior studies show that the symptoms of a mid-life crisis occur regardless of the presence of these types of stressors.  The research was, however, limited to wealthy nations including Canada, Austria, Germany, Finland, Ireland, Britain, and the United States.  Whether or not midlife crises are common in other parts of the world cannot be determined by this study. 

Experiencing middle-life mental health problems in affluent countries is a paradox when those experiencing a crisis are often close to their top earning years, are in good health, and live in a safe community.  Researchers suggest that a midlife crisis may be physiological and not simple a matter of adults reaching middle age and being forced to confront their own mortality. 

The good news?  While mid-life blues are common, wider acceptance of the value of mental health treatment has made it easier for people to access and accept help.  A dip in happiness in midlife may be a normal transition, but older adults who weather the storm often experience greater life satisfaction than their younger counterparts.  Older adults are also better at regulating their emotions and are generally more optimistic.  

Read more about the u-curve of happiness adults experience during mid-life in The Happiness Curve:  Why Life Gets Better After 50 by journalist Jonathan Rauch.