Age-inappropriate cravings for sports cars, affairs with secretaries, mutton dressed as lamb – all stereotypes of the midlife crisis.  Researchers disagree about whether it exists.  But there seems to be some evidence that many people – not just men but women too – encounter a slump anywhere between 45 and 65 (or even earlier) which poses the question, ‘Is this the way my life’s meant to be?’  With mortality on the radar and ageing in the mirror, there may be depression, anxiety, regret for unachieved goals and lost parental roles, a desire to recapture youthfulness, a heightened sex drive, boredom with work or partner and a general discontent with the status quo.  Perhaps it’s relevant that divorce and even suicide rates peak in the 40s and 50s.

It may be that what worked in the first half of life no longer does in the second.  The earlier years have been outgrown.  A time has come for new choices, commitments and beginnings.  If we dare to confront ourselves, we may discover, in the words of the psychoanalyst Carl Jung, that ‘the achievements which society rewards are won at the cost of personality’.  (It’s worth reading that twice).

How not to deal with a midlife crisis

But we don’t always dare to look at ourselves.  Perhaps especially if we’re successful.  As Jung also wrote, ‘the nearer we approach to the middle of life, and the better we have succeeded in entrenching ourselves in our personal standpoints and social positions, the more it appears as if we had discovered the right course and the right ideals and the principles of behaviour.  For this reason we suppose them to be eternally valid, and make a virtue of unchangeably clinging to them’.  This reluctance to face our changing selves is compounded by the fact that to do so could initially mean exposure to the storms of a full-blown identity crisis:   ‘Who am I?  Why am I living the life I’m living?’  It may entail nothing less than the death of an old self.

Research by Cornell University’s Professor Elaine Wethington quoted by the Guardian (27th January 2017) suggests that the description of the crisis given respectively by women and men is ‘not that different’.  Wethington found that the main difference was that ‘women focused more on physical and health changes’ while ‘men were more likely to tie a crisis to a disappointment in their career or job’.  Although some people navigate midlife happily, others, when faced with the classic symptoms outlined above, just put their foot even harder on the pedal and redouble their efforts to maintain what used to work in earlier years.  They don’t invest in personal growth.  The cost can be that stagnation becomes resignation with potential consequences for mental or physical health.

A great opportunity

But the benefit of working with and not against the midlife crisis is that a new self may begin to emerge – capable not just of branching out in fresh areas of life but also of finding a greater authenticity, flexibility, warmth, tenderness and ethical awareness.  Friends may become more important as may the central relationship with a partner.  So too may all those things we always wanted to do but never had time for.  Self-realization and self-development become the name of the game.

A successful midlife transition is moving from doing to being and that may only be fully realized in retirement.  The tasks of younger adulthood (career, marriage, children, success, property, financial security) give way to other tasks (a perhaps more suitable job, self-acceptance, grandchildren, spirituality, solitude and, yes, the acceptance of that mortality factor).

For these reasons, experts often maintain that the midlife crisis can offer exciting, energizing opportunities and that the word ‘crisis’ itself is a misnomer.  Quoted in that same Guardian article, Professor Margie Lachman of Brandeis University, Massachusetts says that ’turning point or midpoint check-up’ would be a better way name for it – a chance to run a Geiger counter over ourselves to see how we’re doing and to make adjustments.

Primate change

By the way, apparently we’re not the only species with the capacity to be happier in the second half of life than the first.  There’s evidence that chimpanzees and orangutans are too.  That might suggest that something biological as well as psychological is at work.

So what do you make of it all then?  Bananas?