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.
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.”