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How to Be Happy in Middle Age and Avoid a Midlife Crisis

What makes us unhappy in the middle of our lives? And what can we do about it?

Key points

  • Research shows that after age 18, our happiness begins to decrease and doesn't recover until our mid-60s.
  • Jonathan Rauch posits that in our middle years, we see life as "a challenge to overcome rather than an adventure to be enjoyed."
  • Instead of thinking of life as a series of tasks you're supposed to complete, try to see it as a series of possibilities.
big stock/ laurentiu iordache
Source: big stock/ laurentiu iordache

There's a reason that the midlife crisis is such a cliché. It's because it's a real phenomenon. We can see the midlife crisis plotted on a U-shaped curve in social science research. On a chart representing the happiness we feel over the course of our lives, our middle years are the lowest point on a U. One study put the age we're unhappiest at 47 years old (1). The research shows that after age 18, our happiness begins to decrease and doesn't recover until our mid-60s. In other words, middle age is hard on almost everyone.

What makes us unhappy in our middle years, and what can we do to get happy?

Humans aren't alone in feeling down in the middle of our lives; apes experience it too. A study showed that great apes also experience down feelings in middle life. The study's authors theorize that individuals, "being satisfied at stages of their life where they have fewer resources to improve their lot, would be less likely to encounter situations that could be harmful to them or their kin" (2).

Is the answer for why our happiness decreases in middle age that we are taking more considerable risks then? It's often the age at which we settle into careers, get married, raise children, and buy a home (if we're lucky). But it's also the age at which career setbacks or lost jobs can have the most detrimental effect. Having and raising children can bring us great joy in middle age, but it can also cause a lot of stress. This is also when people get divorced, lose their parents, and have more health problems. Unhappiness in middle age can't be wholly chalked up to our situations, though. When studies adjust for variables like marriage and income, the curve is still U-shaped.

In "The Real Roots of Midlife Crisis," Atlantic writer Jonathan Rauch describes feeling "a constant drizzle of disappointment" when he was middle-aged (3). "Long ago, when I was 30 and he was 66, the late Donald Richie, the greatest writer I have known, told me: 'Midlife crisis begins sometime in your 40s, when you look at your life and think, Is this all? And it ends about 10 years later, when you look at your life again and think, Actually, this is pretty good.'" Rauch posits that in our middle years, we see life as "a challenge to overcome rather than an adventure to be enjoyed."

Perhaps to be happier in the center stage of our lives, we should look to why people at the later stages are happier. Here are four tips for how to be happy in middle age and avoid a midlife crisis.

1. Nurture meaningful relationships and invest in what makes you happy.

"As people age and time horizons grow shorter, people invest in what is most important, typically meaningful relationships, and derive increasingly greater satisfaction from these investments," psychologist Laura Carstensen and colleagues write in their paper "Emotional Experience Improves With Age" (4). They argue that "emotional experience improves with age because people come to appreciate and invest more effort in matters of life important to them."

To get happier, make time for your friends. Don't blow off a close friend's birthday party because you're tired after a long workweek. The work may not make you happy in the long run, but the friendship will. And spend more time on your hobbies. Invest your time and energy in the things that matter most and aren't related to your everyday career climb.

2. Let go of unrealistic expectations.

"One possible explanation" of the upswing beginning around age 47 "is that individuals learn to adapt to their strengths and weaknesses, and in mid-life quell their infeasible aspirations," David Blanchflower, one of the authors of that U-shaped curve study, surmises (5). By accepting your strengths and weaknesses and letting go of the "infeasible aspirations" you had when you were younger, you may find that you're happier with your life. So, you didn't write a best-selling novel when you were 30? So what? Instead of beating yourself up about what you thought you would accomplish by your age but haven't, focus on what you have accomplished, the joys you have in your life, and what you still can do.

3. Commiserate with your friends.

"Perhaps realising that such feelings are completely normal in mid-life might even help individuals survive this phase better," Blanchflower suggests. "Encouragingly, by the time you are 70, if you are still physically fit then on average you are as happy and mentally healthy as a 20-year-old." Just knowing that the U-shaped curve exists may be helpful. "It may help people to know that others are going through the same thing, but it will soon start to get better," Blanchflower says. You're not alone in your midlife anxiety; it's perfectly normal. So, stop beating yourself up about it.

4. Live for the moment.

"When the future becomes less distant, more constrained, people focus on the present, and we think that's better for emotional experience," Carstensen says (3). Our goals change, too, as we age. "The goals that are chronically activated in old age are ones about meaning and savoring and living for the moment." She says. "As people perceive the future as increasingly constrained, they set goals that are more realistic and easy to pursue." In other words, to be happier, you have to stop moving the goalposts to more and more unrealistic distances.

What makes us unhappy in our middle-age is also what can make us happiest—if we just change our thinking a bit. Instead of thinking of life as a series of tasks you're supposed to complete—get married, have kids, buy a house—try to see life as a series of possibilities. We have a habit of both berating ourselves when we don’t hit traditional life markers (marriage, etc.) on our self-imposed schedule and stressing out about those things (kids, etc.) when we do accomplish them. We think back on the things we didn’t do yet, and cease looking at what we have.

Look around—your life is probably pretty great right now, even if it doesn’t look exactly the way you thought it would when you were 18. And, as science shows us, the best is yet to come. Life is an adventure, and you’ve still got a lot of it ahead of you.







More from Andrea Brandt Ph.D. M.F.T.
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