- For the song by Faith No More, see Midlife Crisis. For the psychological concept, see Generativity vs. Stagnation.
Midlife crisis is a term first coined by Elliott Jaques referring to a critical phase in human development during the forties to early sixties, based on the character of change points, or periods of transition. The period is said to vary among individuals and between men and women. Despite popular perception of this phenomenon, empirical research has failed to show that the midlife crisis is a universal experience, or even a real condition at all.
According to psychologist and writer Oliver Robinson, a life crisis is defined as a period characterized by unstable mental and emotional health, altering the course of life of those affected by it, and affecting them for a year or longer. Life crises usually have similar characteristics for each age group. Those in the early midlife stage are more likely to experience the deaths of loved ones, while declines in physical strength and vitality and impending death or work stoppage are more likely to affect people in late midlife. Effects of crises vary from being beneficial to some and life altering in a negative way for others. About half the people studied found results of their crises to be positive.
Midlife is also significant as a time adults come to realize their own mortality. A mid-life crisis is experienced by some people as they realize they have reached a midpoint in their lifespan and experience conflicts or dissatisfaction within themselves because of unrealized goals, self-perceptions or physical changes as a result of aging or health issues. Sometimes, a crisis can be triggered by transitions such as andropause or menopause, the death of parents or other causes of grief, unemployment or underemployment, realizing that a job or career is hated but not knowing how else to earn an equivalent living, or children leaving home. Additionally, when experiencing a mid-life crisis, people may reassess their achievements in terms of their dreams. The result may be a desire to make significant changes in areas such as career, work–life balance, marriage, romantic relationships, finances, or physical appearance.
Researchers have found men and women, during their 40s and 50s, experience this time when feelings of happiness and life satisfaction decrease and feelings of depression and discontentment increase. The circumstances unique to their lives such as their financial or marital status, health condition, culture or family structure do not necessarily influence or prevent having a time of crisis during mid-life. The worldwide study found that during one’s youth and senior years feeling satisfied and happy tend to peak and then dip during the middle years of life. This appears as a U shaped curve on the time line of a lifespan, which correlates to the time between 40 and 60 years of age. The study conducted by researchers and economists Andrew Oswald of the University of Warwick, and David Blanchflower of Dartmouth College in the United States found this dip to be common and more the norm to people globally. Some people experience more difficulty in reconciling their feelings of turmoil while others transition more easily.
Crisis vs. stressors
Academic research since the 1980s rejects the notion of mid-life crisis as a phase that most adults go through. In one study, fewer than 10% of people in the United States had psychological crises due to their age or aging. Personality type and a history of psychological crisis are believed to predispose some people to this "traditional" midlife crisis. People going through this suffer a variety of symptoms and exhibit a disparate range of behaviors.
It is important to understand the difference between a mid-life crisis and a mid-life stressor. Mid-life is the time from years 40–60 where a person is often evaluating his or her own life. However, many mid-life stressors are often labeled as a mid-life crisis. David Almadia states that day-to-day stressors are likely to add up and be thought of as a crisis, but in reality, it is simply an "overload". Women often experience multiple stressors because of their simultaneous roles as wives, mothers, employees, daughters, etc.
Many middle-aged adults experience major life events that can cause a period of psychological stress or depression, such as the death of a loved one, or a career setback. However, those events could have happened earlier or later in life, making them a "crisis," but not necessarily a mid-life one. In the same study, 15% of middle-aged adults experienced this type of midlife turmoil. Being of a lower educational status is related to feeling stressors to a greater degree than those of a higher education level during midlife
Studies indicate that some cultures may be more sensitive to this phenomenon than others; one study found that there is little evidence that people undergo midlife crises in Japanese and Indian cultures, raising the question of whether a mid-life crisis is mainly a cultural construct. The authors hypothesized that the "culture of youth" in Western societies accounts for the popularity of the mid-life crisis concept there.
Researchers have found that mid-life is often a time for reflection and reassessment, but this is not always accompanied by the psychological upheaval popularly associated with "mid-life crisis." Those who made career or jobs changes early in life were less likely to experience a crisis in midlife.
For approximately 10% of individuals the condition is most common from the ages of 41 through 60 (a large study in the 1990s found that the average age at onset of a self-described midlife crisis was 45). Mid-life crises last about 3–10 years in men and 2–5 years in women. A mid-life crisis could be caused by aging itself, or aging in combination with changes, problems, or regrets over:
- work or career (or lack thereof)
- spousal relationships (or lack thereof)
- maturation of children (or lack of children)
- aging or death of parents
- physical changes associated with aging
Mid-life crisis can affect men and women differently because their stressors differ. An American cultural stereotype of a man going through a midlife crisis may include the purchase of a luxury item such as an exotic car, or seeking intimacy with a younger woman. A man's midlife crises is more likely to be caused by work issues. A woman's crisis by personal evaluations of their roles. Even though there are differences between why men and women go through a midlife crisis, the emotions they both encounter can be intense.
One of the main characteristics of a mid-life crisis perspective, is one assumes that their mid-life is about to be eventful, usually in a negative way, and potentially stressful. Psychologist Oliver Robinson's research characterizes each decade of life by describing frequent occurrences or situations particular to those age periods. He describes that a crisis can begin in your early 20's, when a person usually tries to map out their whole life. Moreover, the later age period, between 50 and 60, may be a time of illness or even the thought of death. Such a deadline may convince a middle-aged person that their life needs to be lived as expected.
Individuals experiencing a mid-life crisis may feel:
- a deep sense of remorse for goals not accomplished
- a fear of humiliation among more successful colleagues
- longing to achieve a feeling of youthfulness
- need to spend more time alone or with certain peers
- a heightened sense of their sexuality or lack thereof
- ennui, confusion, resentment or anger due to their discontent with their marital, work, health, economic, or social status
- ambitious to right the missteps they feel they have taken early in life
They exhibit some of these behaviors:
- abuse of drugs or alcohol
- acquisition of unusual or expensive items such as motorbikes, boats, clothing, sports cars, jewelry, gadgets, tattoos, piercings, etc.
- having remorse for one's wrongs.
- paying special attention to physical appearance such as covering baldness, wearing youthful designer clothes, etc.
- entering relationships with younger people (whether sexual, professional, parental, etc.)
- placing over-importance (and possibly a psychologically damaging amount) on their children to excel in areas such as sports, arts, or academics
A midlife crisis may be an emotional response to a multitude of stresses—unhappy marriages, disappointment in our jobs, and financial woes. Actually, it can be all of these. Dr. Vivian Diller suggests there can be a cumulative effect, but these things can happen at different ages and stages of our lives. She also feels that true "midlife" needs to be adjusted to a new timeline. As our lifespan lengthens into our 80s and 90s, societal definitions within our culture also change, therefore we may need to adjust the timeline of "midlife". Dr. Diller points out that true midlife would appear to be more early 50's, as compared to our previous notion of late 30's or early 40's. She has proposed renaming "Midlife Crisis" to "The Emerging Maturity Crisis".
Treatment and prevention
Physical changes that commonly occur during these years are weight gain, wrinkles, sagging skin, hair loss, graying hair and hormone fluctuations. A vision change known as presbyopia, occurs during middle age when the eye’s lens loses flexibility and focusing requires holding reading material closer, or farther away. Glasses may now be required or a change in prescription. Regular exercise and maintenance of a nutritious diet may help to sustain one's physical and mental health during these years of transition. In addition to exercising and maintaining a good diet, sharing your experience or talking to someone about what you may be going through could help navigate you to where you want to go, or to define your goals.
Significant changes made early in life may prevent one from having a mid-life crisis. An example supporting such a theory can be derived from the research conducted by Dr.Susan Krauss Whitbourne. People who changed jobs before their midlife years had a greater sense of generativity when they reached mid-life. They also experienced a greater sense of motivation to deviate from stagnation and a desire to help the younger generation thrive. This is a psychological stage proposed by Erik Erikson that describes a normal stage adults go through during their mid-life years.
The notion of the mid-life crisis began with followers of Sigmund Freud, who thought that during middle age everyone’s thoughts were driven by the fear of impending death. Although mid-life crisis has lately received more attention in popular culture than serious research, there are some theoretical constructs supporting the notion. Jungian theory holds that mid-life is key to individuation, a process of self-actualization and self-awareness that contains many potential paradoxes. Although Carl Jung did not describe midlife crisis per se, the mid-life integration of thinking, sensation, feeling, and intuition that he describes could, it seems, lead to confusion about one's life and goals.
Erik Erikson's life stage of generativity versus stagnation also coincides with the idea of a mid-life crisis. Erikson believed that in this stage adults begin to understand the pressure of being committed to improving the lives of generations to come. In this stage a person realizes the inevitability of mortality and the virtue of this stage is the creating of a better world for future generations in order for the human race to grow. Stagnation is the lack of psychological movement or growth. Instead of helping the community a person is barely able to help their own family. Those who experience stagnation do not invest in the growth of themselves or others.
Some psychologists believe men's mid-life crisis is a psychological reaction to the imminent menopause and end of reproductive career of their spouses. Their genes may be influencing men to be more attracted to reproductive women, and less attached to their non-reproductive spouses.
Some people have challenged the existence of mid-life crises altogether. One study found that 23% of participants had what they called a "midlife crisis," but in digging deeper, only one-third of those—8% of the total—said the crisis was associated with realizations about aging.
The balance (15% of those surveyed) had experienced major life experiences or transitions such as divorce or loss of a job in middle age and described them as "midlife crisis." While there is no doubt these events can be traumatic—the associated grief reactions can be indistinguishable from depression—these upheavals aren't unique to middle age and aren't an age-related midlife crisis.
University of California - Davis researchers Carolyn Alwin and Michael Levenson presented the current view of midlife crisis in a 2001 article:
Costa and McCrae (1980) found little evidence for an increase in neuroticism in midlife ... While they did find that some people were likely to experience such crises, ... these individuals were likely to experience crises in their 20s and 30s, and these experiences were not unique to midlife. ...Robinson, Rosenberg, and Farrell (1999) re-interviewed (500) men. Looking back over their midlife period, it became evident that while not necessarily entailing crisis, it was a time for re-evaluation."
Wrapping up their review of men's mid-life crisis, Alwin and Levenson wrote that "... Given the bulk of the data, it is likely that, for most men, mid-life is a time of achievement and satisfaction. For a certain proportion of men, however, the passage is not at all smooth." They found a similar pattern when they reviewed research on what are commonly thought to be triggers for women's mid-life crisis: menopause, children leaving home, the "sandwich" of caring for both parents and children. Most women navigated those periods without a traumatic psychological "crisis."
The enduring popularity of the mid-life crisis concept may be explained by another finding by Robinson et al. As Alwin and Levenson summarize: "... younger men, now middle-aged Baby Boomers, used the term "midlife crisis" to describe nearly any setback, either in their career or family life."
Levenson's findings were research about the possible existence of a midlife crisis and its implications. Whereas Levenson (1978) found that 80% of middle-aged participants had a crisis, and Ciernia (1985) reported that 70% of men in midlife said they had a crisis (Shek, 1996) others could not replicate those findings including Shek (1996), Kruger (1994), McCrae and Costa (1990), and Whitbourne (2010). The debate of whether or not there is a midlife crisis is being answered through recent research that attempts to balance such factors as response bias and experimenter effects in order to establish internal validity. The above mentioned research does not support Levenson's model of a single age in the middle years that is a designated time of transition and potential "crisis." Instead, changes in personality can occur throughout the adult years with no peak in general distress or psychosocial crisis (Whitbourne, Sneed, and Sayer, 2009).
Many view mid-life as a negative, but in reality many experience this time positively. If looked at as a time of personal growth, the experience can be greatly beneficial and rewarding. If treated as a transitional phase, psychologists believe the initial experience may be difficult and confusing but as time passes it becomes an experience of self growth and self-realization.
Cognitively, those of this age period tested better than when they were 25. This refutes the presumption of women losing much of their cognitive abilities during menopause. Forgetting words, or numbers does not happen to the degree popular culture would suggest of menopausal women.
In popular culture
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The mid-life crisis has been the subject of many television series and films, often the source of amusement in sitcoms, soaps and other television productions. The 1970s Polish television series, Czterdziestolatek, meaning "The 40-Year-Old," was entirely geared towards covering midlife crisis issues in a comedy series. In the Australian television series, Neighbours, Karl Kennedy went through a mid-life crisis of dating young women and changing his appearance.
While the classic 1955 movie The Seven Year Itch deals with the supposed decline of marital quality after seven years of marriage, the protagonist Richard Sherman (played by Tom Ewell) is obviously going through a mid-life crisis. In fact, the book that proposes the seven-year-itch hypothesis, entitled "Of Man and the Unconscious", even has a chapter on "The Repressed Urge in the Middle-Aged Male: Its Roots and Its Consequences" connecting it to the midlife crisis in men. As an editor for a publishing house, Sherman reads – and reads into – this psychological study which he believes directly corresponds increasingly erotic, frenetic, and ultimately frantic daydreams stemming from his flirtation with the new nubile neighbor upstairs (Marilyn Monroe in one of her most memorable roles).
Decidedly more serious takes on the subject include John Cheever's short stories, "The Country Husband" and "The Swimmer", shedding light on modern '60s era suburbia. At the turn of the millennium, the film American Beauty depicts a middle-aged man pursuing a far younger woman and making radical life changes to feel younger.
English progressive rocker, Roger Waters, formerly of Pink Floyd, also released a solo album, The Pros and Cons of Hitch Hiking, which explores a man and his mid-life crisis as he dreams of having an affair and tries desperately to find solutions to his problems. Similarly, The Kinks' songs, "Shangri-La" and "Clichés of the World (B Movie)", also appear to describe someone going through a midlife crisis.
Monetary costs during midlife crisis
Experiencing a midlife crisis can have a significant impact in terms of finances. These significant influences often differ between women and men. Individuals who are experiencing a midlife crisis are often noticeably fixated on their health because their bodies are aging. Many of these individuals, more often women than men, wish to modify and reshape their body image to appear younger. Women use anti-aging facial products marketed to remove the appearance of wrinkles, dark spots, and dry skin for example. Others opt for plastic surgery. Both men and women in midlife who are experiencing a midlife crisis do more things that are considered entertaining, such as clubbing or partying. They feel as if they should live every moment to its fullest potential because they feel as if their lives are rushing by. Men, more than women, are likely to purchase expensive cars, bicycles, or motorcycles for reasons, such as appearing youthful, being adventurous, or reaching for their utmost dreams.
- Plastic surgery is one of the most drastic measures that both men and women who are experiencing a midlife crisis are very likely to take upon themselves.
- A fancy car may become a desired possession for men who are experiencing midlife crisis. They see the possession of a fancy car as a way of showing off that they have earned money up until this point in their lives and to appear more attractive to younger women.
- Divorce among individuals who are experiencing midlife crisis may be more common. A strong reason for this is increased infidelity in midlife. Women experience menopause in midlife, hence, their ability to procreate ends. Their husbands seek younger women who are able to procreate, not necessarily with an intention to produce offspring, but psychologists refer to this as a human instinct.
- Other midlife crisis expenses involve experimenting with adventurous activities as well as improving body health and appearance through different types of physical activity. Some of these adventurous activities that individuals who are undergoing midlife crisis often participate in are skydiving, hang gliding, and bungee jumping.
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