Does just hearing the words "midlife crisis" conjure up a tired old stereotype? Maybe a forty- or fifty-something man who ditches his family sedan for a flashy sports car and his wife for his young secretary? While this example may be a cliché, there's certainly some truth to the idea that middle age is when we start taking a hard look at ourselves and our satisfaction with our lives.

Despite magazine covers shouting at us that 40 is the new 30, and that life gets better as we get older, recent research bears out the theory that middle age can be a time of discontent. A recent Dartmouth University study of 2 million people in the United States and around the world shows a distinct U-shaped pattern when it comes to contentment and age. Happiness is higher in youth and old age, with the lowest rates found in middle age, mainly between 40 and 50. This U shape cuts across racial, socioeconomic and gender lines, although in women the greatest misery seems to hit at about 40 and in men it's closer to 50. Interestingly, parenthood doesn't seem to make a difference in whether middle-aged people feel depressed or not.

The researchers are unsure why so many people seem down in the dumps in their middle years, but put forth the possibility that in middle age we start realizing our limitations and tamping down our youthful aspirations. According to Dr. Andrew Weil, a well-known holistic practitioner, a midlife transition is a normal, natural part of maturing, a time when we start asking ourselves if we are satisfied with our lives. As a result of all this looking inward, a restlessness may set in. Decisions we made years ago may now seem wrong, and we may feel the need to shake things up. Caught in this need to jump-start our lives or dull the frustrations of recognizing our limitations, some people begin to act out. They may start adulterous affairs or turn to alcohol, food or drugs to cope with confusing feelings. They may become irritable or angry much of the time, or feel that whatever they do doesn't matter. Although it may be difficult or painful to deal with a midlife crisis, Dr. Weil maintains that in the long run it can help the sufferer find more happiness and satisfaction in life. He recommends allowing yourself to reflect on what you have and have not accomplished, but stresses that it's important to set new goals, find new interests, and invest time into your relationships with loved ones.