Midlife Crisis: Myth or Reality?

Do you feel confused about who you are and where you're going? Do you feel trapped by your career, lifestyle, family, and friends? Do you find yourself second-guessing decisions you made years ago or even questioning the meaning of life?

Not long ago, if you answered yes to these questions and were between the ages of 30 and 60, most experts probably would have chalked your feelings up to a midlife crisis. After all, the idea of a midlife crisis—that seemingly inevitable stage of aimlessness and dissatisfaction that accompanies the middle years—has been firmly ingrained in our national consciousness for decades.

Crisis or Cliche?

In recent years, however, experts have been challenging assumptions that the middle years are widely characterized by feelings of self-doubt, decline, and turmoil. In fact, several studies suggest that for most people, this stage in life is a time of overall satisfaction, stability, and well-being.

In one landmark study, conducted by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Research Network on Successful Midlife Development, nearly all of the 750 participants recognized the term "midlife crisis," but only 23 percent reported that they had actually experienced one.

When the study's authors analyzed those responses, they found that only 8 percent were fueled by a realization of aging; the remaining 15 percent were attributed to a significant life transition, such as divorce or the death of a parent. These findings are in stark contrast to studies from the 1970s and '80s, which indicated that as many as 80 percent people experience a midlife crisis.

The 40s Slump

In January 2008, results of a new international study added another level of complexity to the midlife-crisis controversy. The study--which analyzed more than 35 years of data on measures such as depression, anxiety, mental well-being, happiness, and life satisfaction—found that men and women in their 40s were more likely to be depressed than their older or younger counterparts. For both genders, the probability of depression seem to peak around age 44.

The study also found that happiness over people's lifetimes seems to follow a U-shape curve. Midlife represented the lowest point of that curve, while the old and the young enjoyed greater happiness. According to the study's authors, these patterns were seen consistently among 2 million people from 80 nations.

Combating a Crisis or Slump

Whether it's characterized as a midlife crises or a 40s slump, some percentage of the population will still experience fears and anxieties about aging. They may have doubts about the direction in which their lives are heading, be frustrated with their careers, or feel overwhelmed with family responsibilities. According to experts, some of the most common signs of a midlife crisis or slump include:

  • Feelings of regret and/or personal failure
  • A sense of remorse for goals not accomplished
  • Boredom and exhaustion, or frantic energy
  • Frequent daydreaming or feelings of nostalgia
  • Irritability or unexpected anger
  • Acting on alcohol, drug, food, or other compulsions
  • Greatly decreased or increased sexual desire
  • Sexual affairs, especially with someone much younger
  • A desire to achieve a feeling of youthfulness
  • Greatly decreased or increased ambition

Getting Help

If you suspect that you or a loved one is going through a midlife crisis, it's important to talk to a health-care professional. In many cases, your symptoms may indicate clinical depression, anxiety, or a related health problem, so it's crucial to get an accurate diagnosis.

Even if your symptoms can be characterized as a midlife crisis, a trained professional can help you avoid potentially harmful behavior and reckless decisions. Keep in mind that, if not addressed, a midlife crisis can be devastating to a marriage, family, or career. One of the keys to dealing with it is sharing your feelings with a health-care professional, as well as with friends and family members.

Sharing your feelings can also help you separate legitimate fears from imagined ones, ease your worries, and focus on making positive life improvements. Along these lines, many people also find it helpful to engage in a new activity, such as exercise, volunteering, or adult education. Such activities can give people of any age a renewed sense of purpose--and a new outlook on life.