What is a Midlife Crisis and is it Real?
The term ‘midlife crisis’ was created by a 40-year-old man. How’s that for irony? A mid-life crisis refers to the trend of people in middle-age to explore their identity. Whether or not this occurs on a widespread scale or just something made up and perpetuated by society doesn’t really matter—it affects quite a bit of people no matter what they do.
A frustrating side-effect of examining your life and making changes is that if you take up a new habit in your 40s or 50s, many people will think you’re having an identity crisis. On the flip side, if you do the same thing in your 20s and take up a new habit every month, people might think you’re just a bit quirky or an ambitious person looking to improve yourself.
There is something to this mid-life crisis stuff though. I personally reflected on my accomplishments and failures when I turned 40. That led me to make the decision to attend college, entering as a 40-year-old freshman. I wouldn’t say I’d label that as a crisis but due to the widespread idea of the midlife crisis in our society, I’m sure others saw it as such. What brings on this introspection, crisis or not, as people get older?
For those who have been building their careers for the past 20-30 years, they might get the sudden flash of clarity that they’re going to be retiring soon. Layering onto that realization, some might feel that time is running out to pursue their true passion so they better hurry up and get moving. That’s the best-case scenario where you actually know what it is you’d rather be doing to make yourself happy.
If that’s not the case, you can add the fear that you still don’t know what you want to be when you grow up to that list of concerns. With this kind of realization, some people can flip the script of the life cycle on its head from ‘how long I’ve been alive’ to ‘how much time I’ve got left.’
There’s a tendency in our society to wag a finger at people over a certain age for “not acting their age.” There are several studies that show mental age is not the same as physical age. When my daughter was much younger, we watched some of the same cartoons I loved watching on Saturday mornings when I was growing up.
Many of those cartoons didn’t hold up well over time but surprisingly, some did and I still enjoyed them. If I like watching the cartoons I enjoyed when I was younger, am I supposed to take much stock in the opinion of someone else who might say that I’m too old to watch that kind of thing? I don’t think so.
The point is this—you’re only as old as you think you are. I’m not saying we should ignore the biological process of aging, but when you begin to lose your passion for living, stop pursuing happiness, or stop going after that career you always wanted, the more you ‘act your age’ the older (and duller) you can become mentally. Many people also tend to look outward to confirm they are still young—sports cars, going after younger women/men, etc. But these things are all fleeting.
In a famous Harvard experiment, men over 70 were put into a time capsule of sorts where their living environment was a replica of life as the men knew it almost 22 years previously---black and white TV, vintage radios playing music of the time, old magazines--you get the idea.
They stayed in that environment for five days only. Dexterity, grip strength, hearing and vision, memory, and cognition were measured before they entered. The men were instructed to BE the person they were 20 years ago. There were no mirrors, no modern-day clothing, and only photos of their younger selves.
The men emerged after 5 days with improved markers all across the board from what had been assessed before they entered. Individuals in a control group showed no changes. These findings could easily be dismissed as the experiment group only contained five men but in 2010, the experiment was reproduced and broadcast by the BBC with similar results.
The Past is the Past
We all have fantasies of what our lives would’ve been like if we knew then what we know now. But if you live in the past, you’ll miss what surrounds you now. And besides, should we really envy being younger? I had a lot of exciting experiences in my younger days, but it was a hard life at times. Youth is easy to romanticize but being young isn’t as carefree as you might remember. It’s easy to daydream about being young again, to get lost in thoughts of being in your 20s—but people at every stage of life have challenges and problems to deal with. At least once you get a little older you have the benefit of life experience on your side.
Give Yourself a Break
From the time you were born, there’s been a cloud of expectations over your head. The one that sticks out for most people is the need to be financially successful by a certain age. But success is relative to your life circumstances. If you were born poor, you’d most likely be considered a success if you retired a millionaire. If you were born into wealth, you might be considered to have had a mediocre life if you’re only measurement for a successful life is financial wealth.
If you let other people’s expectations control your life, you’re probably going to start believing certain things about yourself. “I’m 40 and not living in a mansion on my own island? Then I guess I’m a failure.” That’s a quick path to anger, depression, anxiety…you probably know what I’m talking about. Truth is, only YOU can decide if the things you’ve accomplished is enough. If you analyze your life and decide you want more, then make a plan to go after it, but don’t let anyone else make that important decision for you.
The man who coined the term “midlife crisis” was Dr. Elliot Jacques. As mentioned earlier, he was 40 at the time. And get this, Dr. Jacques published over 20 books, most of them during his retirement. It’s time to embrace your version of the midlife crisis, real or in name only, and create the life you’ve always wanted. It's never too late.