June 27, 2021
Feeling the Midlife Blues? It gets better.

A version of this essay first appeared in Midlife Cues, a weekly newsletter about intentional living in our middle years. Get it in your inbox; you're going to love it.

“Hello, you’ve reached the winter of our discontent.”

That was Troy, answering the phone, in the 90s romantic-comedy “Reality Bites”, a film that attempted to capture the essence of then 20-something Generation X.

In 2021, the youngest Gen Xers will officially be part of the over-40 crowd. They will find out what those of us who are club members have already discovered: Troy had it wrong. The winter of our discontent wasn’t in our 20s.

In fact, the malaise comes at midlife — hence the term, midlife crisis… a term originally coined in the 60s and popularized by Freudian psychologists to describe a normal part of adult maturation.

Carl Jung placed it midway between adulthood and the end of life. Erik Erikson, the theorist known for creating the Eight Stages of Development, explained it as a transition during the stage he called “middle adulthood”—when people naturally struggle with questions about their meaning and purpose.

These days, the phrase conjures up images that include sports cars, Harleys, body piercings, and plastic surgeries.

In reality, it’s less often an acute crisis and more often an extended period where life satisfaction is low, even despite career success and a loving family.

I once heard somebody describe it as “unhappiness about nothing in particular.” A general feeling of malaise. Midlife is when we find ourselves asking lots of questions. “Is this it?” “What’s next?”

Here’s the good news.

Recent data analysis reveals that this period of general midlife unhappiness tends to be a consistent phenomenon across generations (i.e., We’re not alone, crazy, or a bunch of malcontent ingrates).

Also, midlife is a period of time when many of us experience life events that can turn most smiles into frowns for even the most optimistic of us — sandwich responsibilities of caring for our parents and bringing up our kids, job uncertainties, physiological changes, etc. (i.e., Again, we’re not insane.)

And the really good news? It gets better. Numerous studies show, across geographies, that this period of malaise bottoms out eventually around our late 40s – early 50s. And then, we start getting happier again!

MIDLIFE CUES: A newsletter about intentional living and personal growth in our middle years. Subscribe for weekly dose of nudges and curated resources to feel better, do better, and be better in midlife. 

Hurray for the Happiness U-Curve.

Over the past decades, numerous studies have found recurrent patterns between happiness and important life experiences […] Among these relationships, the one between age and happiness—often referred to as “the U-curve”—is particularly striking due to its consistency across individuals, countries, and cultures.

According to one of the studies conducted by Brookings Institution scholars, happiness declines with age for about two decades from early adulthood up until roughly the middle-age years, and then turns upward and increases with age. Although the exact shape differs across countries, the bottom of the curve (the nadir of happiness) ranges from 40 to 60 plus years old.


(from Brookings Institution)

Jonathan Rauch, author of The Happiness Curve, says that part of this malaise stems from unrealistic expectations that many of us had when we were much younger.

Young people consistently overestimate their future life satisfaction. They make a whopping forecasting error, as non-random as it could be—as if you lived in Seattle and expected sunshine every day. But at around age 50, we tend to become more realistic.

BOTTOM LINE

In his book, Rauch points out that the midlife slump is a natural stage of life. An essential one even. It’s the time in our life when we shift priorities and equip ourselves with new tools that can only help us win in this — and the next — phase in our lives.

In our midlife, we discover that the journey not only continues, it’s likely the better half of the trip. It’s about living life on our terms (finally!) with our own definition of what success looks like.

ABOUT LOU BLASER

A former management consultant and IT leader, Lou Blaser is the editor of Midlife Cues and the host of the Second Breaks podcast. She is also the author of Break Free: The Courage to Reinvent Yourself and Your career. Lou’s work is focused on exploring how to navigate, thrive, and turn midlife into the best phase in our life.