But the reality is, a midlife "crisis" usually isn't much of a crisis at all. With the right perspective, there can actually be some pretty sweet benefits to this transitional period. And its lessons are valuable for everyone, even if you're decades away from middle age.
Researcher Jonathan Rauch prefers to call this time of life, which usually hits just before age 50, as the midlife slump. "Crisis implies that there's something wrong. But what you're going through is a normal, healthy, and productive transition," explains Rauch, author of The Happiness Curve: Why Life Gets Better After 50. That said, it's not an easy one. "It's this slow, grinding trudge where people feel restless and dissatisfied in midlife, but they don't really know why. They become disappointed in how [un]happy they've been in the past, and pessimistic about how happy they'll be in the future."
While that doesn't exactly sound pleasant—because, well, it's not at the time—this dissatisfaction can actually pave the way for some of the best years of your life. Skeptical? Let Rauch explain why.
Here's why you should actually be looking forward to your midlife "crisis."
When it comes to aging, happiness is a U-shaped curve
The "happiness curve" that Rauch refers to is a U-shaped pattern that suggests happiness is highest in the earlier and later decades of adulthood—but not so much in the middle. Of course, life circumstances play a role, so you're not doomed to be despondent in your 40s. (This U-shaped curve might change, say, if you have serious health struggles earlier in life, or you get your dream job when you turn 49.)
"All other things being equal, there's an effect of aging that's not what you think—aging tends to make you feel less and less satisfied until midlife, and then it switches sides and helps you feel more content [as you age] after that," explains Rauch. "This undercurrent has been found in countries and cultures all over the world."
In the US, the low point of this curve usually hits in your late 40s or at age 50, says Rauch, and the fog starts to lift in your early 50s.
A midlife crisis leads us to redefine happiness
As it turns out, what makes people happy in their 20s, 30s, and early 40s is actually pretty different than what makes people happy in their late 50s, 60s, and beyond.
"In early adulthood, we're primed by nature to want to be ambitious and to achieve high status by accomplishing great things. [We think], if I win my Pulitzer Prize, I'll be happy," Rauch says. The problem? The more people achieve, the more they want to achieve, he explains. We keep raising the bar on ourselves, consciously or not, and this can leave us feeling empty.
"After 20 or 25 years of this, especially if we have met our goals and we're still not as fulfilled as we expect to be, we start feeling like, 'Nothing will ever make me happy, life is just one big disappointment,'" he says.
Enter, a midlife slump. Which, again, feels pretty miserable at the time—but it leads us to discover a new source of happiness.
"We are changing at the level of our emotions, our mindset, and even our brains, so that in the later years of life, we are less oriented toward seeking satisfaction from achievements, and more oriented toward seeking fulfillment in interpersonal connections," says Rauch.
In other words, we start sourcing more of our joy from nourishing relationships with family and friends, finding community, and being a part of things that benefit the greater good. "The payoff is very strong in the evidence and very strong in my interviews—the later decades of life are the most emotionally rewarding for people," he says.
How to make a midlife crisis feel easier
Of course, none of this is much consolation when you're actually in a midlife slump. But there are ways to sail through the bottom of this "happiness curve" a little more smoothly.
First of all, it's important not to stress about the slump. "A big part of what makes this period so treacherous is that you're not only dealing with the tendency to be less satisfied, you're worried about being dissatisfied, and that makes you even more dissatisfied," says Rauch. Instead, realize that it's all part of the never-ending process of growing up.
And remember that you don't have to suffer in silence—reach out for support. Rauch says enlisting a coach can help you navigate things. Other types of cognitive therapy can also help, as can meditation.
A midlife slump can also be an opportunity to make well-considered changes. While it's probably not a good idea to wipe out your marriage, career, entire friend circle, or whatever else you think might be making you unhappy, that doesn't mean a midlife slump can't be a great time to reevaluate.
"Sometimes, people really do need change," says Rauch. "But don't throw your life away… Build on what you're good at, and make logical changes. It's a good time for self-renewal, just be careful about it."
How to use the "happiness curve" to your advantage at any age
The midlife slump is a natural part of life, so for most people, it's probably not entirely avoidable. But knowing what's ahead might actually help you incorporate some of its lessons earlier on.
"We want people to be young and ambitious, but you're never too young to be told that the road to happiness lies through other [people], trusted connections, and leading a life that contributes to the wellbeing of others," says Rauch. In other words, being driven and goal-oriented is a great thing—but so is prioritizing quality relationships in your life. Time to finally get that monthly women's circle on the calendar, then?
Here's how to find your happiness sweet spots every month, according to your menstrual cycle. And if you're feeling low, working out for this amount of time will give you a mood boost.
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