Worried About a Midlife Crisis? Don't. There's No Such Thing

Research explodes the myth and points to a very different future.

Posted Jul 11, 2015

Fotoluminate LLC/Shutterstock
Source: Fotoluminate LLC/Shutterstock

One of psychology’s most beloved myths is the idea that midlife is marred by massive upheavals in an individual’s personality, relationships, and work life. Recently, Consumer Reports provided site visitors with “10 Midlife Crisis Cars for Father’s Day.” This article assumes that a midlife crisis is something that will definitely happen to you, and when it does, you’ll need the car to seal the deal.

There is, however, virtually no data to support the assertion that the midlife crisis is a universal experience. Those who conduct research in this area continue to wonder why this myth lingers when we keep failing to find evidence for it in our data. Cornell University sociologist Elaine Wethington talks about the midlife crisis as a case of “expected stress.” You think everyone will have a midlife crisis so you feel you have to fit into the mold. If you don't, you think there's something wrong with you.

Some very large-scale surveys show that there is generally a “U-shape” to the well-being curve of age by happiness that corresponds to midlife. As claimed in an Atlantic article earlier this year, such evidence (along with “data” from apes) disproves the refutation of the midlife crisis myth.

The U-shaped curve can exist, however, without meaning that a crisis occurs at its lowest point. Think about the last time you were truly “happy.” Could you pinpoint the exact date and time when, if someone asked you, your response to the question of how happy you are would be 11 on a scale of 11? It’s much more likely that when asked this question, there’s a lot on your mind: You’re worried about getting groceries, figuring out who’s going to pick up the kids from after school activities, or how you’re going to get the tires fixed on your non-midlife crisis minivan. If, however, someone asked you whether your life had meaning and fulfillment, at that very moment, you could still smile and say “of course.” 

Apples and oranges underlie this debate, allowing big-data scientists to cling to their claims of midlife crisis universality.

The larger the dataset, the smaller the differences have to be from one happiness rating to the next in order for it to be “significant” (i.e. less than a very small likelihood of occurring by chance). Two tiny ticks of less than 1% on an 11-point scale is all it takes for differences to show up as meeting this criterion when there are such large numbers involved in the comparison. 

With this background, my colleagues and I decided to explore the question of whether adults of different ages, including suspected midlife crisis victims, would show this pattern of results. We used a measure that taps into an individual’s feeling that life has meaning, one that should be sensitive to midlife waves of discontent. Along with my former student Taylor Lewis and the University of Miami’s Seth Schwartz, we will be presenting data from this study at the 2015 APA Convention in Toronto. 

For this study, a continuation of my earlier 34-year investigation of personality in adulthood, we analyzed the responses of nearly 500 midlife and older adults to a simple scale known as the MLQ (Steger et al., 2006). The participants had all been followed up from their college days (the study was begun by a predecessor of mine). For this analysis we compared four groups ranging from the 30s to the 60s in the 2013-14 testing. The MLQ offers respondents the chance to evaluate how much they feel their current life has meaning (Presence of Meaning in Life) and how much they feel they are looking for that meaning (Search for Meaning in Life). (I reproduced a representative set of 5 of those questions in a previous post.)

My coauthors and I administered this questionnaire to our sample via an online survey site, asking participants also to describe their current state of well-being and overall satisfaction. The key question for the purpose of documenting a midlife crisis was whether participants in their 40s—supposedly in the throes of its worst torment—would rate themselves as unusually low in Presence of Meaning and unusually high in Search for Meaning.

As we expected, the results showed no such pattern of midlife malaise. The participants with the highest Search for Meaning scores were in their 30s, and the mean scores decreased in a straight line after that across the remaining age groups of 40-, 50-, and 60-somethings. The opposite pattern showed up in Purpose in Life: The 60-somethings were comfortably secure in feeling that they knew what their lives were about, while the 30-somethings were not. The 40-year-olds were simply a data point on an otherwise invariant straight line. Similarly, there were no "U's" in the satisfaction ratings we obtained, just a very straight upward-sloping line from the 30s to the 60s.

Of course, there are variations from person to person, based not just on age but also on personality in such qualities as finding purpose and meaning in life. Also, the people with the highest MLQ Meaning scores and lowest Search scores had the highest levels of well-being. Here again, as in so many surveys of thousands of adults, there were no clear age-related valleys (or peaks) in midlife in any of these qualities.

This study’s findings may not qualify as the definitive end to the midlife-crisis myth, or the debate. However, the results are completely in accordance with the dozens of others, dating back to the 1970s, that question the validity of the midlife crisis as a universal experience.

People can certainly be unhappy in their middle adult years, and they can certainly go out and buy sports cars (or fantasize about buying them). Some will get divorced and some will even move to Santa Fe, the fabled destination for miserable midlifers. However, whether they do so because of, or in direct relation, to their age is doubtful. Change is possible at any age, whether in crisis form or not, as we all try to achieve fulfillment.

References

Steger, M. F., Frazier, P., Oishi, S., & Kaler, M. (2006). The meaning in life questionnaire: Assessing the presence of and search for meaning in life. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 53, 80-93. doi:10.1037/0022-0167.53.1.80

Whitbourne, S.K., Lewis, T.R., &  Schwartz, S.J., (2015). Meaning in Life and Subjective Well-Being Across Adult Age Groups. Paper to be given at the 2015 Annual Convention of the American Psychological Association, Toronto CA, August 6-9.

Follow me on Twitter @swhitbo for daily updates on psychology, health, and aging. Feel free to join my Facebook group, "Fulfillment at Any Age," to discuss today's blog, or to ask further questions about this posting.

Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne 2015