Introduced to popular psychology in the mid-1970s, the midlife crisis is now entering its own midlife years. Unlike the dwindling of energy that is supposed to sap all middle-aged adults, however, the midlife crisis shows no sign of dropping off the horizon. Embedded in all media from literature to the tabloids, the midlife crisis is used to explain almost every aspect of adult personality, health, careers, and relationships. We can account for everything from wanting to hop on a Harley or join the nightly club scene to the angst that inevitably accompanies the unhappy years stretching from the 40s to the 50s (or beyond).
The midlife crisis started out very innocently with the less hyped-up name of the “midlife transition.” A Yale psychologist named Daniel Levinson published a book (with several collaborators) in the late 1970s called Seasons of a Man’s Life (and he did mean “man”). Levinson and his team based their book on informal interviews with 40 men, 10 from each of 4 professions. The midlife crisis got its punchy name with the aid of journalist Gail Sheehy, who published her own book (Passages), based heavily on Levinson’s own work along with a similarly-themed book by UCLA psychiatrist Roger Gould.
Levinson believed that the midlife transition was one of several in life in which adults examine and possibly rebuild their “life structures.” Sheehy ramped up the volume by proposing that the age of 42 brought with it a predictable crisis of epic proportions that affects everyone (men and women). You could set your calendar, if not your watch, according to Sheehy, by the psychological twists and turns of a person’s life accompanying each magical shift from decade to decade. Her entire premise, however, is wrong because age is, truly “just a number,” and often an inaccurate one.”
The publication of Levinson’s, and then Sheehy’s, books set off a flurry of empirical studies in adult developmental psychology attempting to verify their assertions. Literally none of these studies found the midlife crisis to be a universal, or even near-universal phenomenon. To me, the most interesting was one conducted through the Boston VA, called the “Normative Aging Study” (Costa & McCrae, 1980). The men in this study were followed from their early 20s throughout adulthood and the only ones who had a “midlife crisis” (i.e. depression and despair) were ones who, in their 20s, were also depressed and anxious. Once a crisis-prone individual, always a crisis-prone individual, according to this study.
Another important study was a national survey of over 3000 men and women known as Midlife in the United States, originally sponsored by the MacArthur Foundation (Wethington, 2000). Of the small minority of the sample who claimed that they had experienced a midlife crisis, the age range was so wide (up to 65 years) in the estimated time of the crisis, that it lost all meaning as a “midlife” experience, unless those people were optimistically believing they would live to 130. I also did my own research on midlife and, like my colleagues, found no supporting evidence. In my latest study following 180 adults from college through midlife (published in The Search for Fulfillment), I reported, like the Normative Aging Study results, that the only people to have a “midlife” crisis had experienced many crises throughout their adult years.
These are only a few examples of research that failed to support the generality of the midlife crisis not only as a universal phenomenon, but as a phenomenon at all. If you’re depressed in midlife, there may be many reasons for this, the least of which is your “age.” The important bottom line is this. If you feel you, or someone you know, is going through a midlife crisis, then it’s crucial to seek intervention whether it be through counseling, psychotherapy, or other contact with a mental health professional. There’s no reason for a midlife crisis to occur spontaneously, just because you turn a certain age.
With this background in mind, let’s look at those myths. There is no better place to find them than to look at one of the games that was popular in the 1980s called “Midlife Crisis.” Its cards encapsulate (in humorous form) the essence of the midlife crisis from physical changes to problems with spouses, work, finances, and children. In case you’re not familiar with it, the game takes you from one “ZAP!” or “CRISIS” to another with the supposedly inevitable experiences that accompany midlife. You rack up “Stress Points,” “Divorce Points,” and “Costs (in 1000 dollar increments)” as you proceed through a journey involving physical changes, marital woes, and career missteps. Virtually 99.9% of the cards describe negative events. You win by accumulating fewer problems than your opponents.
For each myth, I quote the game card, and then show why it’s a myth. You can click on the links within each of these myths to find out more about each topic.
1. The 10-year old station wagon needs to be replaced. Your spouse wants another station wagon, you want a 150 mile per hour sports car. Some people never learn. ADD ONE DIVORCE POINT.
Of course this is the iconic image of midlife crisis popularized in American Beauty when Lester buys his own red sports car to drive and another toy one to play with indoors. This is the #1 myth because it has become so emblematic of midlife silliness. It’s probably not worth dignifying with statistics, but if red is supposed to be the color of choice for midlifers, it’s not showing up that way in people’s buying habits. Overall, red vehicles account for a tiny fraction of car colors and although it is supposed to symbolize sexiness, dynamism, and high energy, people of all ages seem to have tamer tastes. Can a difference of opinions over cars lead to divorce? As in American Beauty, this divergence would symbolize deeper-seated problems than just which vehicle to park in your driveway.
2. Both of your parents have passed away. You realize that you are now the older generation. ADD 300 STRESS POINTS.
It’s not a myth that people lose their parents in adulthood, nor is it a myth that this is stressful. The myth is that the experience must inevitably be linked to crisis and that it must be associated with midlife. People have normative expectations about the events in their lives, which include living past their parents. Because we have our early adult lives to prepare for this fact, there is no reason to assume that it must always lead to crisis. Furthermore, being a member of the older generation does not have to cause undue stress as people are well-prepared to take on these positions to guide and support the younger generations.
3. You’re tired of manual labor. Return to college to get your degree. (VARIABLE PENALTY).
This card will cost you $12,000 but add stress points according to your age. If you’re over 40, it will add 400 points (therefore it’s worse than losing your parents). It’s not a myth that people return to college in midlife, and in fact they are increasingly likely to do so. The myth is that this is progressively more stressful, and that it will cost you money. Returning to college because you now have the chance to, or because you realize that you need more education, is a positive step to take, no matter what your age. If you don’t like manual labor, this would be a valid reason to seek a degree to give you the chance to explore a new career path. You’ll also, very likely, increase your salary because a college degree is, even in the present economy, associated with higher earnings.
4. At last. Your first affair during 18 years of marriage. Your partner is delicious by any standard, but you can’t perform. ADD 500 STRESS POINTS.
I’m not sure why this doesn’t qualify for a divorce point, but let’s assume the spouse isn’t aware of your decision to enter into this supposedly “typical” midlife crisis behavior. Contrary to this scenario, normal age-related changes don’t involve loss of sexual interest or ability. Stress, overwork, and, in this case, guilt may instead play a much larger role when it comes to seeking out an affair.
5. Many couples develop a lasting friendship and concern for each other which transcends sex and which will take them into their later years. You, however, are interested in tight young flesh and transitory relationships. ADD ONE DIVORCE TOKEN.
Following from the above card, this one is only half of a myth. The first sentence is correct, though “transcending sex” altogether may overstate the case. The second sentence makes the first one sound ridiculous. Of course, if you believe in a midlife crisis, it would make sense to want “tight young flesh.” However, this isn’t what most midlife adults want or even do. Instead, most couples actually do enjoy the ties that bind over the years, and they have an active sex life at the same time.
6. You have just returned from your class reunion. You were the only one there who wasn’t a stunning success and who couldn’t remember the school song. Not being successful is understandable but you wrote the school song. ADD 200 STRESS POINTS.
Let’s unpack this card to discover its 2 hidden myths. Myth one is that “you were the only one there who wasn’t a stunning success…” During the throes of a midlife crisis, so the myth goes, you must come to grips with your inability to realize your youthful dreams. Narcissistically, you’re convinced that everyone else looks at you as a failure. In reality, most people are not so narcissistic that they believe that everyone in their social circle is looking at them. Myth two is that you couldn’t remember the song you wrote. This taps into the myth of inevitable memory loss, or “senior moments” as part and parcel of midlife. Sadly, once people start to buy into this myth, they may actually worsen their chances of keeping their cognitive functioning in tip-top shape.
7. The wrinkles in your face are becoming unbearable. Make arrangements for a face lift and being to worry. Life’s like that. ADD 100 STRESS POINTS.
It’s true that wrinkles accumulate as people get older, although one of the worst culprits – the sun- can easily be avoided if you start using sunblock when young. However, does everyone feel that these wrinkles are truly “unbearable”? Again, the midlife crisis myth says that as we get older we inevitably feel despondent about our aging faces. However, the reality is that people accept changes in their faces, and elsewhere, because they occur gradually throughout life. Some people even take pride in their “laugh lines” and believe that they help them look wiser and wittier, if not slightly older. Note that several cards in the deck refer to other normative age changes with similar pronouncements of doom, gloom, and stress points when, in fact, most people adapt well over time.
8. Time to get back into shape (VARIABLE PENALTY)
This myth about midlife assumes that starting to work on improving your health through diet and exercise is invariably unpleasant and stressful. The costs associated with this move start to pile up after the age of 40 ($2000 and up), as do the stress points (600 and up). Contrary to this myth, deciding to improve your health isn’t a reason to increase your stress levels. In fact, exercise is one of the best ways to maintain your physical and mental functioning, and thereby avoid some of the other problems thought to be intrinsic to midlife. You’ll be far better able to handle stress by getting back into shape, and you’ll also make sure that your “midlife” doesn’t refer to 20 or 30 rather than 40, 45, or longer.
9., At 3 a.m. on Thursday morning June 16th you discover that you have no value system. No answers as to what is really important and worthwhile in life. This is cause for concern, or is it? ADD 200 STRESS POINTS.
This midlife crisis myth is based on the assumption that the desire to find meaning in life strikes with a vengeance when people hit their 40s. Not as stressful as being unable to perform while having an affair, but stressful nevertheless. Contrary to this myth, people gradually evolve in their values, beliefs, and insight as they go through life. There is unlikely to be one point that anyone could identify during which they became aware of their values, or lack of values, or that this point is even attached to a specific age. If you were to have such an experience, however, it would seem to be a reason to subtract- not add- stress points. Ultimately, you’ll have greater well-being if you can move to a point of realizing what is important and worthwhile.
10. Give up your high paying high pressure job to work with clay. You develop a deep respect for mud and tolerance for poverty. LOSE 200 STRESS POINTS.
Finally, you might say, a midlife crisis event in which you lose rather than gain stress points! I would agree with you except for the implicit assumption that the only way to reduce your stress is to give up your job and pursue your fantasy job. Instead, people can lose stress at any point in life by taking advantage of some of the very same strategies we’ve already looked at: exercise, values clarification, career adjustments, seeking intervention if you are having personal or relationships problems. It might be fine to give up your job and seek artistic fulfillment, but it’s more realistic to incorporate gradual stress-releasing steps into your everyday life, at least at first.
To sum up, there isn’t a single component of the mythical midlife crisis concept that includes positive growth or change. These top 10 myths are each painful in their own way, implying that as we get older we inevitably must deal with loss, failure, relationship problems, and existential despair. Perpetuated by the media, which is still fascinated with the concept, the midlife crisis is the psychological equivalent of a hurricane. People are more likely to follow a disaster in the news than they are to pay attention to a peaceful status quo.
If you’re convinced that you’re having a midlife crisis, it might be worthwhile for you to follow up on the areas that concern you the most- whether it’s your health, your relationships, your job, or your well-being. The midlife years span many decades and, with luck or a little help if you need it, can be physically and psychologically rewarding ones.
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Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne 2012
Costa, P. T. J., & McCrae, R. R. (1978). Objective personality assessment. In M. Storandt, I. C. Siegler, & M. F. Elias (Eds.), The clinical psychology of aging (pp. 119–143). New York, NY: Plenum.
Wethington, E. (2000). Expecting stress: Americans and the 'midlife crisis.'. Motivation and Emotion, 24, 85-103.