Unless you’ve been living in a cave, you’re probably aware that the 78 million baby boomers have entered midlife. As a psychotherapist and business psychologist – and member of this new midlife generation myself – I’ve worked a great deal with midlifers seeking help for emotional conflicts, career dilemmas and life transition issues.
I’ve heard many expressions of midlife distress, but few as poignant as this one: A 47 year–old married mother of three told me of a dream in which she’s on one of those moving sidewalks, but can’t get off. On either side scenes pass by – it’s herself, living different lives, with different people. Suddenly she recognizes the Grim Reaper standing at the end of the sidewalk, arms outstretched, awaiting her. She wakes up, screaming.
How to best understand it’s meaning? One problem is that much of the research and clinical understanding about midlife is contradictory. Some, like a MacArthur Foundation study, suggest that there’s no such thing as a “midlife crisis” today; that most people sail through it smoothly. Others, like two recent studies, suggest that midlife is a time of universal depression;
For example, a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that found a 20 percent rise in midlife suicide among 45 to 54 year–olds from 1999–2004 – a rise that exceeded all other age groups in the U.S.
Another study reported an increase in depression during one’s 40s to early 50s, after which happiness rises again. Researchers from the University of Warwick and Dartmouth College studied 2 million people from 80 nations and found this pattern to be consistent across gender, socio–economic levels and among developed and developing countries alike.
Some experts think the rise of midlife suicide may reflect the decrease of hormone replacement therapy among women, the stress of modern life or increased drug usage among midlifers. But they’re groping in the dark. Such experiences can lead to many outcomes, depending on how the person handles them, not necessarily suicide.
Regarding the rise of “happiness” after midlife depression, some speculate that people may feel happier after their 40s because they’ve learned to count their blessings, or resign themselves to life goals they know they’ll never achieve.
Based on my own work over the last few decades, I find these explanations unconvincing. The data only underscore the need for a new understanding of midlife; a new framework through which people could learn to deal more effectively with the positive and negative changes they encounter. Here’s mine:
What Is “Midlife”Anyway?
First, I think the term “midlife” is a misnomer. Psychologically, it’s really the portal into full adulthood, the time when you face the challenges of “evolving” into a fully adult human. Successfully crossing that portal involves addressing some core questions: “What am I living for?” “What’s the purpose of my life?”
These questions are the source of most adult emotional conflicts, because facing them often arouses tremendous fear, denial or escapism. After all, we’re highly conditioned to define ourselves by what we have rather than who we are. We learn to turn away from looking down the road, where we see Death patiently awaiting us all, as that 47 year–old woman did in her nightmare. The economic downturn that began in September 2008 has added to the fears about what may lie ahead.
Moreover, “midlife” actually kicks in around 35. That’s when most people start Continue reading