5 Reasons the 'Mid-Life Crisis' Theory May Be a Myth

New research shows that many people are happier in midlife than in their 20s.

Posted Jan 12, 2016

mbolina/Shutterstock
Two Canadian studies found that the 'mid-life crisis' may be a myth. Is the same true for Americans? 
Source: mbolina/Shutterstock

Having a 'mid-life crisis' is accepted by most people as being par-for-the-course when transitioning from young adulthood into your middle-aged years. The term 'mid-life crisis' was coined by a Canadian psychoanalyst Elliott Jaques. The specific age span for having a mid-life crisis is dubious and broad—this 'crisis' can occur anytime from your late thirties to early sixties.

Typically, a mid-life crisis is experienced when someone realizes that he or she has reached a midpoint in their lifespan and the odds that life is actually going to pan out the way one had envisioned, or dreamed, probably isn't going to happen. It’s easy for cynicism, malcontent, and depression to creep in when you realize that your dreams and expectations of life may never come true . . . or that you're past your prime.

Is the 'Mid-Life Crisis' Theory a Myth? 

The good news is that two longitudinal studies by University of Alberta researchers in Canada have identified that happiness doesn’t necessarily come to a halt during midlife. The research team—which included Nancy Galambos, Harvey Krahn, Matt Johnson and colleagues—found that there was an upward trajectory of happiness for Canadian test subjects that began in their late teens thru early twenties and escalated into their thirties.

The September 2015 paper, “Up, Not Down: The Age Curve in Happiness from Early Adulthood to Midlife In Two Longitudinal Studies," was originally published online in Developmental Psychology. Although these Canadian studies were longitudinal, it's impossible to know exactly how these findings would translate to other nations globally.

For this study, the research team followed two groups of people: One group of Canadian high school seniors from ages 18-43 and the other a group of university seniors from ages 23-37. Both groups had happiness scores increase into their 30s. After accounting for variations in participants' lives, such as changes in self-rated physical health, employment, and marital status; both samples demonstrated a general rise in happiness after graduating high school and attending university.

The researchers also controlled for important baseline covariates including gender, parents' education, academic performance, and self-esteem. According to the researchers, this study on midlife crises is more reliable than previous research because it measured happiness levels in the same individuals over a long period of time. Below are five factoids from the study that may debunk the mid-life crisis theory:

5 Reasons the 'Mid-Life Crisis' Theory May Be a Myth by Galambos et al.

  1. People are happier in their early 40s (midlife) than they were at age 18.
  2. Happiness rises fastest between age 18 and well into the 30s.
  3. Happiness is higher in years when people are married and in better physical health, and lower in years when people are unemployed.
  4. The rise in happiness between the teens and early 40s is not consistent with a midlife crisis.
  5. The rise in happiness to midlife refutes the purported "u-bend" in happiness, which assumes that happiness declines between the teens and the 40s.

Why Are So Many Middle-Aged White Americans Dying Young?

Petar Paunchev/Shutterstock
Source: Petar Paunchev/Shutterstock

Although the findings from the University of Alberta in Canada on happiness during midlife are promising, is the same true for people living in America? In November 2015, two different studies were released by researchers in the United States showing that middle-aged Americans across the board were more depressed than they've been in decades. As a demographic group, middle-aged white Americans are also dying young.

I wrote about these findings in two separate Psychology Today blog posts, “Why Are So Many Middle-Aged White Americans Dying Young?” and “7 Ways to Create an Upward Spiral of Positive Emotions."

According to 1999-2013 data collected from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the U.S. Census Bureau, individual death records, and other sources, the three causes of death that accounted for the change in mortality rates among non-Hispanic whites were: suicide, drug and alcohol poisoning, chronic liver diseases and cirrhosis. These factors have caused the mortality rates for middle-aged white Americans to skyrocket compared to other demographic groups in the past decade.

The second November 2015 study, "More Happiness for Young People and Less for Mature Adults: Time Period Differences in Subjective Well-Being in the United States, 1972–2014,'' was published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science. In a press release, lead author and fellow Psychology Today blogger, Jean Twenge said,

"American culture has increasingly emphasized high expectations and following your dreams—things that feel good when you're young. However, the average mature adult has realized that their dreams might not be fulfilled, and less happiness is the inevitable result. Mature adults in previous eras might not have expected so much, but expectations are now so high they can't be met.”

After reading about Twenge’s findings, I emailed her to ask if she saw a correlation between these two November 2015 studies. In her email response to me, Twenge wrote,

"It's so funny that you mention the study of white Americans dying young, because that was my first thought too: I bet the increase in mortality and the increase in unhappiness have the same roots. Then when I read the paper and saw that the mortality was mostly caused by suicide and substance abuse, I became even more convinced. As you saw in my blog, I think the high expectations and relationship breakdown of our individualistic culture are the main culprits."

In my email, I wrote to Jean Twenge, "This is such a complex and important issue for so many people. I'm optimistic that subjective well-being (SWB) is never set in stone. How do you think someone who is over 30 and unhappy, as reflected by low subjective well-being, can turn his or her life around and create an upward spiral of positive emotions and well-being?" In response, Twenge said,

"Of course, I can't claim to have any easy solutions to the problem. I think the research on gratitude is informative, though—it suggests focusing on what you have instead of what you don't have, and writing a "gratitude letter" to someone who helped you. Making commitments to relationships is also good advice—we need other people to be happy, contrary to the modern mantra of "you don't need anyone else to make you happy." And my friend Sonja Lyubomirsky, who co-authored the paper, has lots of solutions in her book The How of Happiness."

Conclusion: The Power of Focusing on the Next Generation in Midlife

Have you experienced a mid-life crisis? Do you think you’re having one now? If you are no longer a young adult, how did you cope with transitioning from youth to middle age? 

I was born in 1966 and will turn 50 this year. Statistically, this puts me past the midway point between my birth and death. Luckily, I’ve avoided having a full blown mid-life crisis. I credit my smooth-ish transition into middle age with deciding to re-invent myself, and readjust my priorities, when I turned 40 based on Erik Erikson’s stages of Psychosocial Development.

Erik Erikson was a developmental psychologist and psychoanalyst who among other things coined the phrases “identity crisis” and “generativity.” Erikson described generativity as, "a concern for establishing and guiding the next generation." Between the ages of 40 to 65, Erikson theorized that we all face the existential question, “Can I make my life count?” and the psychosocial crisis of “generativity vs. stagnation." Personally, I’ve found Erikson's framework extremely helpful as both a parent and someone who was highly susceptible to having a debilitating mid-life crisis.

Hopefully, Erikson's wisdom about the importance of transitioning from a mindset of “it’s all about me” to a mindset and priorities based on generosity, generativity, and gratitude will help you avoid a mid-life crisis, too. 

To read more on this topic, check out my Psychology Today blog posts,

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