Is a midlife crisis a real thing, or is something deeper going on?


Maybe you slipped into crisis mode during your 40s after an expected career change, or maybe it was your 50s after your kids went off to college. Or maybe you’re a real go-getter and it happened when you turned 25 and, instead of celebrating, you got stuck working late at a job you didn’t even like (@me). Whatever your specific sitch, you’re convinced this must be what a midlife crisis (or, okay, quarterlife crisis, for all the wunderkinds in the room) feels like.

Before you go out and blow your savings on a little red convertible (or your go-to equivalent), pump the brakes on your breakdown. Here’s what’s actually going on when the growing gets tough, according to experts.

First things first, is a midlife crisis a real thing?

Nope, it’s a unicorn…as in “a mythical creature in psychology,” says Dr Susan Krauss Whitborne, Professor Emerita in the Psychological and Brain Sciences department at University of Massachusetts Amherst. In fact, she adds, “We [people who do research in this area] really don’t find evidence that age is associated with any distinct changes in personality that would constitute what is popularly called a ‘midlife crisis.'”

She cautions that the term “midlife crisis” isn’t just fictional in itself, but that putting such a label on a tough time in your life can also be reductive and harmful to your overall mental health. It’s easy to chalk your problems up to age and slap a “This, too, shall pass” bumper sticker on ’em. It’s a lot harder to investigate what might be causing your increased anxiety, stress, or even depression — and face it head on, potentially with professional help.

So, if I’m not experiencing the signs of a midlife crisis, what’s going on?

Well, life. “People can go through a period of questioning and challenging at any point in adulthood, and it could be triggered by who knows what,” says Whitbourne. Maybe you’re dealing with an unexpected financial burden, caring for ageing parents, or feeling purposeless now that your kids have moved out. While the cause varies person to person, a 2008 study by economists David Blanchflower and Andrew Oswald found “the U-curve of happiness” — a.k.a. a statistical trend showing that people begin life optimistic, but that happiness decreases as they enter adulthood, and then bounces back in late adulthood — in 55 of 8o countries. (They also cited more than 20 other papers finding the U.)

According to their research, the average person hits rock bottom at age 46. (Sorry to anyone who just celebrated that particular birthday.) Luckily, that doesn’t last very long, says Barbara Bradley Hagerty, journalist and author of Life Reimagined: The Science, Art, and Opportunity of Midlife. “What begins to happen in your 50s is that you start to focus on things that are really important to you. You focus on your kids, your hobbies, the parts of work that really feel meaningful, and you begin to kind of climb up that U curve of happiness,” she explains. “Through your 50s and 60s and into your 70s, you actually become happier.”

Of course, with every rule comes an exception. This one? “People who have purpose in life, who really feel like they have a reason to get out of bed in the morning, their U curve of happiness is higher, no matter what their education or income level is,” notes Hagerty. “What they found is having a purpose in life seems to be this magic bullet, where people who have meaningful relationships [and engage in] meaningful activities seem to be happier.”

That said, Whitbourne maintains her point that, psychologically speaking, putting “midlife” in front of another word changes its meaning. “There’s so much individual variability, and part of what we find in our research is that people don’t all age the same,” she notes. “And midlife can be anywhere from 30 to 60, so that’s the other problem — it’s a little bit imprecise.”

READ MORE: How To Deal With The Difficult People In Your Life, According To Psychologists

How can I deal with something that feels like a midlife crisis (even though it really isn’t)?

If you suddenly feel a prolonged lack of energy (to the point where even brushing your teeth feels like a chore) or a glacier-sized weight of responsibilities resting on your chest, those are two potential signs that you’re going through something serious. It’s not necessarily a midlife crisis (because, again, those don’t exist), but — as the kids say — the struggle is real.

Your best bet to feel less bleh: “Look at whatever the signs are that you’re labelling a ‘midlife crisis’ or a malaise and say, ‘What’s really going on with me?'” says Whitbourne. Then, she recommends asking yourself how you can address the real, underlying issues and what steps you can take to feel better, learn from this experience, or grow.

Work suddenly feels harder than it used to? It’s probably not because you’re lacking in any actual energy — no matter how bogged down you might feel, says Hagerty. More likely, you’re just bored. Hagerty recalls learning this lesson from Howard H. Stevenson, the Sarofim-Rock Baker Foundation Professor emeritus at Harvard Business School and author of Just Enough: Tools for Creating Success in Your Work and Life. He told her, “If you’re doing the same thing year in and year out, you’re going to feel this malaise. So, do you have 20 years of experience, or do you have one year of experience 20 times?”

If you answer with the latter, then you’ve probably gone into crisis mode because you’re craving a new challenge. Hagerty suggests re-finding your purpose by “pivoting on your strengths” to do more of whatever makes you — ya guessed it — happy. Maybe that means asking your boss to focus on a different part of your work responsibilities, or using the skills you already have to switch into an adjacent lane for your career. Instant solution? No, but it is a surefire way to feel more fulfilled.

When the walls of responsibility seem to be closing in—family, work, mortgage (so, literally) — you can feel weighed down and with nowhere else to go. And, to a certain extent, you are stuck in this life you’ve created. “But the point is that if you just put one foot in front of the other…you’re going to get through it,” Hagerty says.

One thing to make the slog feel less like a, well, slog? Remembering that these responsibilities are the good kind. That’s where the socioemotional selectivity theory, developed by Laura Carstensen, Professor of Psychology and founding director of the Stanford Center on Longevity at Stanford University, comes in. She found that, as people age, they naturally begin to focus on what gives them emotional satisfaction and meaning, like their children, career, and home life.

What if I need some motivation?

Hagerty suggests reconnecting with old friends you might’ve lost touch with over the years, or making new ones by taking up a new hobby or finally pursuing a long-held passion. That can help fulfill what she calls “a little purpose,” which is any activity — whether it be cycling class or guitar lessons — that gives you a reason to bust out of bed in the morning. (The “big purpose,” she says, is often your family, especially children and grandchildren, but it can also be something external, like a political cause.)

Ultimately, knowing you’re not having a midlife crisis can, in itself, make you feel better, adds Whitbourne. Bad week or month (or several)? Sure. But it’s not a “crisis” — it’s just another normal part of growing up.

This article was originally published on

Image credit: iStock

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