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Everything You Ever Wanted To Know About Your Midlife Crisis

And yes, women can get them too.

author

Dr. Katie Spalding

author

Dr. Katie Spalding

Freelance Writer

Katie has a PhD in maths, specializing in the intersection of dynamical systems and number theory.

Freelance Writer

Edited by Maddy Chapman

Maddy is a Editor and Writer at IFLScience, with a degree in biochemistry from the University of York.

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Sad woman staring at a cupcake with "40" candles

To be fair if my partner got me that tiny cake for the big 4-0 I'd divorce them and buy a sports car too.

Image credit: Gladskikh Tatiana/Shutterstock.com

Most of us think we know what a “midlife crisis” is. It’s the shiny new sports car, the questionable combover, and all those other barely-concealed penis metaphors, all culminating in one big “I only get to see the kids every other week now.”

But hang on. Time and time again, science has shown us that what we thought we knew is completely wrong. So how much of the stereotypical “midlife crisis” is true? What does it look like? When does it occur? Does it always end in divorce?

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Heck, is the midlife crisis even real?

What is a midlife crisis?

Well, it’s complicated. Many psychologists have argued that there’s no such thing: “There is […] virtually no data to support the assertion that the midlife crisis is a universal experience” wrote Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Professor Emerita of Psychological and Brain Sciences at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, in a 2015 article for Psychology Today. “Those who conduct research in this area continue to wonder why this myth lingers when we keep failing to find evidence for it in our data.”

In fact, the textbook “midlife crisis” is, well, pretty enigmatic. For starters, when exactly is “midlife”? If you’re young, chances are you can imagine a midlife crisis turning up some time in your early 30s; wait a few decades, and you’ll find your definition of “midlife” may extend all the way into your 70s.

And whichever decade we choose to define “midlife” as, it’s not certain that you’re more likely to have some kind of crisis then, either. “One study suggests […] that self-reported crises simply become steadily more common as we age,” wrote Nick Haslam, Professor of Psychology at the University of Melbourne, in a 2019 article for The Conversation. “Among study participants in their 20s, 44 percent reported a crisis, compared to 49 percent of those in their 30s, and 53 percent of those in their 40s.”

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Other studies have drawn similar conclusions. Older subjects report having midlife crises later than younger ones; “midlife” in the 1990s was seen as being a decade or two earlier than it is now. According to some researchers, “midlife” isn’t an age at all, but a lifestyle.

“Arguably there is no distinct midlife crisis,” Haslam concluded. “Just crises that occur during midlife but might equally have occurred before or after.”

Why do people have midlife crises?

So much for expert opinion – the fact is that we live in a world in which almost half of over-50s claim to have experienced a midlife crisis. And it turns out there’s one group of scholars who definitely believe in the phenomenon: not psychologists, or even biologists – but economists.

“No ifs, no buts, well-being is U-shaped in age,” wrote David Blanchflower, Professor of Economics at Dartmouth, in a 2020 paper investigating happiness levels throughout life. “The average age at which the U-shaped minimized across the 477 country-level estimates reported here is 48.3.”

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It’s hard to overstate how unavoidable this nadir of happiness seems to be. It’s been confirmed across 145 countries, from America to Zimbabwe; heck, it even shows up in chimpanzees and orangutans. “It is in rich and poor countries,” Blanchflower wrote; “I found it in Europe, Asia, North and South America, Australasia, and Africa.”

So, clearly, there’s something about middle age that makes us, well, kind of depressed. But why? After all, in many respects, midlife is the best period of time we get: it’s when we’re earning the most; we are, on average, settled into our careers and home life; we’re older, yes, but wiser with it. And yet we despair.

Elliott Jaques thought he knew why. It was he who, in the mid-50s, first introduced the term “midlife crisis” into the English language: “In the course of the development of the individual there are critical phases which have the character of change points, or periods of rapid transition,” he wrote in a 1965 article cheerfully titled “Death and the Mid-Life Crisis”. “Less familiar perhaps, though nonetheless real, are the crises which occur around the age of 35 – which I shall term the mid-life crisis.”

And the reason for such a crisis was, he thought, obvious. “The paradox is that of entering the prime of life, the stage of fulfillment, but at the same time the prime and fulfillment are dated,” he explained. “Death lies beyond.”

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In other words, he suggested, a midlife crisis is what happens when you suddenly realize you’re going to die – sooner rather than later. This can trigger a slew of manic behaviors – “compulsive attempts […] to remain young,” Jaques wrote, including “hypochondriacal concern over health and appearance, the emergence of sexual promiscuity in order to prove youth and potency, [and a] lack of genuine enjoyment of life” – all subconsciously designed to convince the universe that you’re still as young and as healthy as ever.

That was more than 60 years ago, though. What do today’s experts think about the causes of the midlife crisis?

Well, honestly, we’re not sure. “The short answer is we do not know what is driving it,” admitted Jenny Chanfreau, Senior Researcher at the National Centre for Social Research, in 2013

Best guess? Jaques might have been right all along. “[Some] research has suggested that the midlife crisis occurs due to unmet expectations,” Chanfreau wrote; “the realisation that one’s youthful aspirations have not and will not be achieved, and that as people adjust their expectations in later life wellbeing improves.”

What are the symptoms of a midlife crisis?

So, if the problem is an awareness of aging and mortality, what’s the remedy? Well, to a certain extent, there’s a reason for the cliché about sports cars and new flings.

Indeed, people experiencing a midlife crisis “may live a more reckless lifestyle because of the urgency to reevaluate life and really live,” psychotherapist Annette Nuñez told MindBodyGreen in 2022. 

“You're hitting a midpoint in life,” she said, “and you're reevaluating what you've done in life, including any regrets, and questioning what you've done so far.”

Some of the consequences of that aren’t so worrying – there’s nothing wrong with updating your wardrobe or dyeing your hair neon green, after all, even if it does make your teenage kids roll their eyes at you. Other symptoms are more philosophical in nature, involving re-evaluating your life so far and where it’s headed now – which makes sense for what is, after all, pretty much the definitive existential crisis.

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But some “symptoms” are genuine causes for concern. Reckless behavior is known to increase during midlife, with the crisis-hit attempting to “escape through something that looks momentarily pleasurable,” Douglas LaBier, a business psychologist and psychoanalyst in Washington, D.C., told the AARP in 2022; “the new car, the trophy wife, drinking or drugs.” Suicide, too, peaks during this time: CDC data shows a clear peak in midlife, when suicide rates shoot to more than twice as high as in adolescence.

“The midlife crisis is real,” Chanfreau wrote. “There seems to be something in particular about the midlife crisis […] that makes it less amenable to differences in circumstances than the troubled mid-teen years.”

Can you recover from a midlife crisis?

Despite all this doom and gloom, there is good news on the horizon – first of which is that, chances are, you probably won’t even have a midlife crisis in any case.

“Middle age may be dislocating for some but there is little evidence it is usually a period of crisis and despondency,” Haslam pointed out. “Psychologically speaking, things tend to get better.”

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The numbers bear this out. Despite anecdotal horror stories, there’s little evidence that divorce rates rise during midlife – in fact, they’re lower than any age before, and continue to decrease. And while sure, luxury car sales may peak for buyers in their 40s and 50s, this could equally just be a sign of how well life is going by that point: “people in mid-life make more money than they did when they were younger,” pointed out Thomas Hills, Associate Professor of Psychology at the University of Warwick, in a 2013 article for The Conversation. 

“Perhaps a better indicator would be whether or not we saw a rise in fatal car accidents,” he reasoned. “The answer appears to be no; crash rates and fatal car accidents are at their lowest among people in their 40s and 50s.”

Altogether, then, it seems like not only are midlife crises avoidable – even if we don’t quite know yet how to ensure we swerve them – but even if we get hit by one, they’re both temporary and, well, not really that bad. In fact, they might even be a good thing.

“Midlife crises are actually really helpful,” Nuñez said. “You start identifying who you are and what you want to do throughout the rest of your life.”

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“Midlife crises can be healthy,” she concluded. “As long as people don't react to them to the extremes.”

All “explainer” articles are confirmed by fact checkers to be correct at time of publishing. Text, images, and links may be edited, removed, or added to at a later date to keep information current. 


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