Wiser and Happier?

Getting older isn't as bad as it seems—on the contrary, it has its perks. Plus: How your sense of happiness changes as you age, midlife crisis myths, and ancient wisdom about aging.

The 'New' Midlife Crisis

How do you know it's coming?


By now, most of us have gotten used to Michelle Obama's new hairdo, but when she first appeared in bangs, it threw the public into a media frenzy.

On one talk show, she explained, "This is my midlife crisis, the bangs! I couldn't get a sports car. They won't let me bungee jump. So instead, I cut my bangs." While she seemed to be joking about it all, Ms. Obama's reaction to aging may be more complicated than we'll ever know. 

The 'midlife crisis' has served as fodder for many a Judd Apatow movie, but the reality of the experience is anything but funny. The traditional image—of the 40-year-old-guy who runs off with a new girlfriend in his shiny red sports car—is simply anachronistic. The struggles during this phase are not gender-specific, nor does a one-size-fits-all description apply. In truth, it's emotionally more complicated and when a true midlife crisis hits, it can wreak havoc for both men and women as well as their families and friends.

First, some facts: Today, reaching 40, 45 or even 50 doesn't even mean you've hit your midpoint. Since the end of life continually moves forward, with current life expectancy now around 80, it's more accurate to think of midlife as a range of ages. Measuring from the start of adult life (age 21), middle age is best identified as ranging from one's 40s through 50s, depending upon how long a person lives. Now as we hit 40, we no longer have only have a decade or two to live. The challenge at this stage is less focused on the end of life, but rather on how to make the most of the years that lie ahead.

Moreover, it is more accurate to associate the 'midlife crisis' to a psychological experience than a chronological event. Confronting mortality can happen at any time, but for most, it occurs when something triggers life's limitations. Sometimes physical signs of aging set it off (graying hair, wrinkles, loss of libido) and other times it's more psychological (loss of a loved one, the empty nest). Regardless of its trigger, this is a time when people stop in their tracks—sometimes for a moment, for days, weeks or even years—and reflect back on how well (or not) we have lived thus far.

To me, the most interesting question is this: Why is the midlife experience more challenging for some and not others? It seems the answer lies in part in how we have viewed life thus far. Those who feel gratified by lives well spent tend to feel less conflicted as they look back, and then forward. But others wonder, Is this all there is? They see limited years ahead and think, If I keep going the way I am, will I have deep regrets? Some feel it's a time to switch directions and make dramatic changes while there is still time left. Should I leave my marriage? Start a new job? Move to a new city? Reinvent myself? It can throw some people into an existential crisis as they confront serious questions about their current life and their potential future.

To the outside observer, the actions taken by a person in the midst of all these emotions may appear foolish, impulsive and self-indulgent. They can negatively impact others who are left as collateral damage. These acts may seem uncharacteristic, as if coming out of nowhere. Sometimes they are rooted in an urgent desire to fulfill a bucket list (e.g. the need for adventure, a different job or a new mate). But upon deeper introspection, we often find the desire for change is based on long-term dissatisfaction and frustration. Plans for shifting directions typically brew over long periods of time and current actions reflect an accumulation of conflicting emotions that require resolution. 

Keep in mind that this time of self-reflection often occurs as men and women are facing hormonal changes (menopause in women and decreasing virility among men) as well as an acute awareness of the visible signs of aging. Add to that feelings about children leaving the nest, elderly parents needing more help, careers heading south and long-term relationships that may have hit a plateau and it's easy to see how a crisis of emotions could be brewing.

Here is a list of questions to ask yourself in order to determine if you may be heading toward—or are in the midst of—a 'midlife crisis.' My next post here will describe ways to navigate through this potentially difficult time and productively move past it.

1. Have you been feeling down or empty for long periods of time with no relief? (This is different than mood swings, which come and go.)

2. Do you get enraged over small things or have violent outbursts with your family and friends? (Again, this is not the same as feeling irritable on and off.) 

3. Do you feel detached? Have you stopped engaging in activities that once gave you pleasure with your mate, friends or at work? Do you find hobbies that use to interest you now feel meaningless or boring? 

4. Do you find yourself constantly thinking about your mortality, the meaning (or meaninglessness) of life?

5. Are you deeply dissatisfied with your relationship? Have you cut off emotionally and physically from your mate?

6. Are you thinking of quitting your job or fantasizing about never working again, even if you can't afford to retire?

7. Does the life you envision ahead exclude the people or activities you are currently attached to?

8. If you were once religious, are you questioning your beliefs? Are you seeking a deeper connection to spirituality? Do 'new wave' religious groups or cults interest you?

9. Do you keep thinking about running away or taking a break even if you have responsibilities that keep you from doing so? For example, is it hard to imagine finding satisfaction in being a mother or wife anymore?

10. Are you flirting with the idea of having an affair or have you started one? Are you spending inordinate amount of time on your computer engaged in online chats with strangers?

11. Are you making sexual gestures towards others—a young co-worker, your son's baseball coach, a guy you met at a bar—seeking their attention even when it feels inappropriate?

12. Do you have a desperate desire the freedom and independence, regardless of how it impacts others? Are you seeking adventure, but not sure where to find it?

13. Are you acting recklessly, like driving your car too fast or engaging in other impulsive behaviors like you may have as a teenager? Are you dressing like your much younger daughter? Spending a lot of time with people half your age?

14. Have you gained a lot of weight? Are you binging on junk food? Have you lost a lot of weight, lost interest in food or gone on crash diets? Are you obsessively exercising?

15. Are you drinking too much, often by yourself?

16. Are you overusing prescription or recreational drugs? 

17. Are you obsessing about your appearance, trying to 'anti-age' and overdoing it on cosmetic procedures or plastic surgery to look younger? 

18. Do you find yourself looking in the mirror and think, I don't recognize myself. 

You may relate to a few—or many—of these behaviors, thoughts and feelings. Taken individually, for the most part, they are harmless and a rather natural part of this transitional stage of life. But, if you answered 'yes' more often than 'no,' if they have been ongoing for more than 6 months and if you rate them high on a scale of 0-10 (with 0 being never and 10 being always), it's possible that you are undergoing a midlife crises. Acknowledge that you are struggling with difficult emotions that are common at this stage of life, but then accept they may require some special attention before you take any further action.

Recognizing the warning signs of a midlife crisis is a first step. Dealing with the underlying emotions and considering your options come next. Stay tuned for Part II of "The 'New' Midlife Crisis—and How to Avoid One." Meanwhile, remember that even the most well put-together among us may need some help to work our way out of these powerful feelings. This is a life experience that may change in its parameters—but never really disappears.

 

Vivian Diller, Ph.D. is a psychologist in private practice in New York City. She serves as a media expert on various psychological topics and as a consultant to companies promoting health, beauty and cosmetic products. Her book, "Face It: What Women Really Feel As Their Looks Change" (2010), edited by Michele Willens, is a psychological guide to help women deal with the emotions brought on by their changing appearances.

For more information, please visit my website at www.VivianDiller.com; and continue the conversation on Twitter @ DrVDiller.

For more by Vivian Diller, Ph.D., click here.