Despair not: Midlife angst more transition than crisis

Phil Castle
Phil Castle

Unless I live to be 118, I’m well past midlife  — at least from a strictly mathematical perspective. Does that also mean I’m past the threat of a so-called midlife crisis?

Since I don’t seem to recall any bitter disappointment about the shortcomings in my life — or, in a desperate attempt to assuage my anguish, the overwhelming impulse to trade in my trusty Explorer for a sleek Corvette — did I avert a crisis? Or is the whole midlife crisis thing just a lame excuse for narcissistic malcontents to whine about problems more imagined than real?

It’s difficult to say. The results of research conducted over the years are mixed.

Given the responsibilities of the middle-aged work force — from executives to mid-level managers to front-line workers, most of them at or near the peak of productivity — there’s a legitimate concern involved. Consequently, it does no good to dismiss out of hand the notion of a midlife crisis or at least the possibility of difficulties associated with getting through this time of life.

Fortunately, some of the research findings offer hope people experience more satisfaction and happiness as they age — along with gaining what might be considered the wisdom of compassion, tolerance and even the calm acceptance of uncertainty. There’s also a growing trend for people to turn to creative pursuits to deal with the doldrums of midlife instead of buying sports cars or pursuing other attempts to remain youthful.

Elliott Jaques, a physician and psychoanalyst, invented the term midlife crisis in a paper he presented in 1957, describing a depressive period that occurs when people realize their lives are half over and the path ahead appears to slope downward and inexorably toward the grave. The term subsequently expanded to include nearly any kind of strife — for those who’ve achieved what they’ve wanted, but don’t see the point as well as those who feel they haven’t yet achieved enough and are unlikely to given the limited time they have left.

In the 1970s, journalist Gail Sheehy literally wrote the book about the midlife crises based on her interviews of middle class men and women across the United States. Sheehy reported in her subjects a sense of stagnation, dissatisfaction and anxiety.

Subsequent research concluded, though, that only a small proportion of Americans actually experience what qualifies as a midlife crises. What at one time was feared as a biological inevitability was debunked as a myth — if anything, a construct of Western culture.

Yet, the concept wouldn’t go away, either as part of the zeitgeist or a subject of research.

Economists studying happiness in people around the world discerned a pattern that emerged from large sets of data, a U-shaped curve in which satisfaction in life declines in the first couple of decades of adulthood, hits rock bottom in the early 40s or 50s and then climbs to higher levels than in young adulthood.

Could it be that people reach their 40s and ask, “Is this all there is?” But then, a decade or so later, they realize, “Hey, things are actually pretty good.” The other possibility could be that as people age, they reach a point at which they finally stop obsessing about themselves and turn their efforts instead to nurturing relationships that make their lives more meaningful.

Other research affirms the correlation between age and traits attributed to wisdom, among them compassion, calm and comfort with change. Not just older and wider, but older and wiser.

There’s a movement, too, among those experiencing midlife anxiety and depression to take up more creative pursuits, whether that’s artwork, music or other new activities that transport them at least for a while outside their discomfort zones.

Like I said, I never experienced a midlife crisis. At least I don’t believe I did.

It’s true I took up scuba diving at age 56. But that wasn’t the result of some sort of belated crisis. I wanted to join my sons and brothers in a sport in which we could all participate. It didn’t take me long to realize what a remarkable experience it is to observe life under the sea.

According to the one theory, I averted a midlife crisis because I pursued a creative outlet in writing. In fact, writing has been both my vocation and avocation since I graduated from college in 1981.

Have I accomplished everything I envisioned for my life nearly 40 years ago? Not so much. I haven’t yet won a Pulitzer Prize or penned the Great American Novel. At this point, I’d settle for the Okey-Dokey American Novel. But where those ever realistic expectations? Probably not.

In the meantime, I’ve enjoyed the privilege to work in print journalism. To still work in print journalism at a time when there are those who deem — mistakenly, I’d argue — newspapers as anachronistic as buggy whips.

Far more important, I’ve been abundantly blessed with the love of family, the support of friends and the opportunity to engage nearly every day in relationships professional and personal. How cool is that?

A midlife transition? Perhaps. A crisis? Decidedly not.