Ingrid Barratt is due for a midlife crisis, so she set out to understand our middle years. What she discovered is that midlife might be hard, but it can also be more meaningful.
I should be having a midlife crisis. According to popular mythology, it hits anytime between 30 and 50. As a woman, I will therefore soon be making the audacious decision to pack in my 9–5 job, swapping the daily grind for sumptuous meals and romance in Italy.
If I was a guy, I would most likely be looking at a convertible and using Regain (a hair growing product). And we’ve all heard the tales of husbands trading in their spouses for a ‘newer model’ and other horrendous metaphors.
But—quick survey—how many of us midlifers are really experiencing this existential angst? Yep, life is hard. We’re juggling the responsibilities of a demanding job, family challenges, a mortgage, marriage, bone-tiredness, monotony, packed lunches and evening meals. Our fitness is dwindling and our waistlines are increasing. Yet instead of running away, most of us are sticking it out.
Barbara Bradley Hagerty is a journalist who has spent years investigating midlife, bringing together research from science, psychology, art and life in her book Life Reimagined. She argues that midlife is a phenomenon, but it is not a crisis.
The myth of the midlife crisis
The concept of a ‘midlife crisis’ was only popularised in 1978, with Daniel Levinson’s book The Seasons of a Man’s Life. Levinson argued that between 30–45 ‘a man suffers the ‘agonising’ process of ‘de-illusionment’, when he compares his youthful dreams with his present, greyer reality. The man is ‘horrified’ by ‘every aspect’ of his life, and begins testing out new choices. Hence, the Hollywood midlife crisis was born—with its new cars, new wives, road trips and dread of impending death.
Since then, the midlife crisis has been extensively researched and the results are surprisingly boring. For instance, only around 10 per cent of us experience the classic midlife crisis.
The U shape
What Hagerty found was that we do experience ‘midlife malaise’. From New Zealand to Nigeria, researchers have discovered a global phenomenon: through the seasons of life, our happiness is shaped like a ‘U’. In our 20s, we experience more instant happiness—nights out with friends, falling in love, good times.
As we enter midlife, we go through the valley of the U—life becomes more demanding. Typically, our responsibilities are at their peak—we have a more challenging job, we’re raising families, have tight budgets and are experiencing the ups and downs of marriage.
The thrills of our 20s give way to the sometimes grinding monotony of midlife. But, Hagerty argues, ‘Meaning trumps pleasure. People in the thick of midlife chaos may not say that they are happy in the moment. But they will say that their lives are meaningful, a measure that has its eye on the long game…
‘You cannot live a few decades without taking some knocks, without seeing some friends and family perish and seeing some dreams die. All this creates a mixed happiness, a certain poignancy that recognises that things are not perfect, nowhere near as perfect as you thought they’d be when you were 21, but they are pretty good.’
In fact, coming to terms with life as it really is—not as you thought it would turn out—increases our happiness.
‘People start out with very high goals,’ says Hagerty. ‘In midlife, they realise on average that [these goals] couldn’t be achieved—most people can’t be a CEO—and that’s painful. But what are you going to do about that? You can either cling to them and be increasingly miserable, or you can adapt to your failures. The standard theory is that we eventually learned to forgive ourselves and our weaknesses and gradually we could get happier.’
Average is okay
As a writer, I relate to this change in perspective. During my 20s, my theme song was ‘I Want to be a History Maker’ by Delirious. Looking back, it was somewhat grandiose, but I loved Jesus (I still love Jesus, that hasn’t changed!) and I really wanted to make a difference. When I got into my 30s, I had the blinding realisation that I would never write a best-selling book. If I had a midlife crisis, this was probably it: the realisation that my place in the world would always be pretty average.
But as I walked through this change of perspective, it became a blessing. Jesus would love me and walk with me through my normal, average life. I didn’t need to prove myself to God or anyone. All I needed to do was be faithful with the responsibilities that God put in front of me. No more and no less.
With this knowledge comes a great freedom from the shackles of expectation. And, in fact, I realised there is no such thing as an average life. It turns out that the responsibilities God has put in front of me are quite enough. If the greatest thing I ever do is raise my child then that is an insanely beautiful achievement.
Despite the responsibilities, the hard work and the monotony, in many ways, midlife is actually the peak. We are typically at the height of our earnings, we have garnered respect in our area of work, we have experience and wisdom, and we’re still healthy. And we’re at the top of our intelligence.
Scientists have put intelligence into two categories: the kind you are born with, and the kind that grows with experience. Your natural intelligence starts to decline after 30. But the good news is that in midlife, you have the perfect combination of brain cells that haven’t significantly declined, with a lot of accumulated experience-based intelligence. This is the midlifers’ time to shine. Apply for The Chase Australia. Join a quiz team!
In fact, taking up new challenges in midlife is exactly what we need to increase our happiness quota—to start going back up again from the bottom of the ‘U’.
‘When you’re younger you have all these markers—you graduate from college, you get married, have family, launch a career. And then you hit midlife. It’s like a book without punctuation—lots and lots of words with no paragraph, no full-stops, no semi-colons.
‘And what you should do is create punctuation by creating little goals in midlife that have nothing to do with your work or family responsibilities,’ says Hagerty. ‘The people who did that, I found, were really, really happy. I think that’s one of the real secrets to midlife happiness.’
The anti-aging secret
The single greatest anti-aging secret is not found in a bottle. It’s not health or wealth. It’s not even intelligence. The single greatest predictor of happiness at the end of life is engagement. Simply: staying interested, staying involved.
In fact, if you have a reason to get up in the morning, says Hagerty, you’re far less likely to exhibit the symptoms of Alzheimer’s—even if you have it! ‘When scientists did autopsies, they found that a third of people who showed up as having an Alzheimer’s brain didn’t show a single symptom. The biggest predictor [for escaping the symptoms] was if they had a purpose in life—a reason to get up in the morning.’
If we have a relationship with God, science, psychology and spirituality all agree we are far more likely to be happy. That’s because our happiness stems from knowing there is a purpose greater than our everyday comings and goings. Our outer lives may seem somewhat monotonous, but there is a river of life within us that keeps on moving. Sometimes it’s a gentle stream, at other times it’s a raging river, but its current is always taking us towards our ultimate goal.
‘For me to live is Christ, and to die is gain,’ says the apostle Paul. He was a prisoner, yet he understood the truth that science is uncovering: the key to happiness is purpose. Not one of us is immune to the malaise, monotonies and, yes—at times—the crises of life. But we, all of us, hold the keys to happiness in our hands.
This is an edited extract from New Zealand Warcry