Are You Really Having a Midlife Crisis?

Are You Really Having a Midlife Crisis?

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And if you are, 5 tips to help smooth the bumps in the road

No midlife crisis here!

"No midlife crisis here!" courtesy of mykalburns

As a man in his...ahem...forties (and how on Earth did that happen?), progressing through this middle territory, time going quicker than a skier flashing down a greased toboggan run, I've noticed something unsettling. No, not just the fact that I've started automatically looking at my watch when someone suggests a drink; something else.

In your twenties, if you take up a new hobby or decide to travel, it's just seen as you being who you are. But in your forties, any new decision or change in direction leaves you open to diagnostic mutterings of, "Ah, midlife crisis!" Life is full of transitions, but when you make them in your middle years, it's labelled a crisis.

I mean, come on! Can't a guy invest in a new sports car, buy a gold medallion, or take up street rapping without someone linking it to his barely suppressed desire to stave off his despairing awareness of the increasing momentum of speeding time as he tips inexorably toward his own oblivion? Sorry, I got carried away there...

But if I can be serious for just a moment; what exactly do we mean by 'midlife crisis'? Does it even really exist? And what in the name of expanding waistlines can we do about it?

Who 'invented' the midlife crisis, anyway?

The term 'midlife crisis' was coined by the psychoanalyst Elliott Jaques in 1965, when he was 48 (enough said).

The so-called midlife crisis is that time when we start to wonder what we've achieved and where our lives are going. What seemed like a limitless ocean of possibility in our youth starts to look like a stale puddle of shrinking options as we age. It's a time in which people whom you feel have luckily been grave-dodging for years start including you when discussing 'people our age'. Startlingly, you realize you've moved up a notch.

So we have a perhaps understandable ache for lost youth and a growing sense that if you're ever going to live the dream, you'd better start...well, living it pretty soon. But implied within the popular idea of 'midlife crisis' is something else: denial.

Midlife crisis! What midlife crisis?

When people talk of the midlife crisis, there is the implication that the...sufferer is kidding themselves somehow. That by desperately 'acting young', they are fooling themselves that they are younger than the evidence of their birth certificate might suggest.

We begin to suspect that kids (and by that I mean anyone under 35) are starting to find our increasingly desperate attempts to feel young embarrassing. Break dancing at the wedding party, anyone? (With a cricked back thrown in.)

We look ruefully in the mirror - perhaps with the light switch nicely dimmed - wondering who this contemptuous middle-aged stranger staring back is....Enough!

It doesn't have to be like this.

Let's get positive

Actually, as we'll see, there is amazing research to suggest that acting young and even dressing young can reverse some of the effects of aging. And I believe the middle years are a perfect time to re-evaluate and make changes.

All us midlifers should stand up, whilst we still can, and make necessary changes; go for what we want (within legal and possibly ethical limits) and cast off the label of 'midlife crisis'. If a ninety-year-old takes up skydiving or lifting weights, we applaud them; but if a fifty-year-old does it, we snigger as we reach for the MLC tag.

So if you've been feeling jaded, faded, decayed, moth-eaten, and past it, or anxious about 'becoming old', then fear not. Just follow these tips to take the crisis out of midlife and feel fresh again.

1) Don't act your age!

Before you deride that other-than-young female friend for not 'dressing her age' or besmirch that 45-year-old divorcé for continually playing records from his youth, consider this: Harvard psychologist Ellen Langer conducted a now famous study. She took a bunch of elderly men in their late 70s and early 80s (presumably with their permission) and relocated them to an isolated house in New England. The house had been retrofitted so that every visible sign said it was 20 years earlier. The TV shows, music, and clothes were all from many years before.

The men were told not to reminisce about the past, but to actually act as if they had travelled back in time. The researchers wanted to see if acting younger and being surrounded by cues from decades before might lead to actual changes in health and fitness.

The results were amazing. After only a week, the men in the experimental group (compared with controls of the same age) had more joint flexibility, increased dexterity, and less arthritis in their hands. Their mental acuity had risen measurably, and they had improved gait and posture. What's more, outsiders who were shown the men's photographs judged them to be significantly younger than the controls. In other words, the aging process had in some measure been reversed (1).

Constantly thinking about or talking about your age is...aging. So feel free to act as young as you feel and let others feel embarrassed if they want. Age is partly an attitude.

2) Stop idealizing the past

We all have fantasies about what we could have been in a different life: singers, writers, actors, tycoons, political leaders. Nostalgia is often just a sense of loss of old fantasies that we once believed would transpire.

But the carefreeness of youth is a myth; the young do not have endless opportunities or freedoms. Yet it's so easy to fall into the trap of retrospectively idealizing our youth. We all still have problems, but with time come the resourcefulness and experience to deal with them. You are now well placed to use all that you spent years learning.

3) Give yourself a break

"What have I achieved?" is a constant lament of millions suddenly shocked to discover themselves qualifying as 'middle-aged'.

We can all have brainwashed into us ideas as to what we should own or have achieved by a certain age. Who says a forty-year-old should own a house or have a family? Or have travelled to the ends of the Earth?

Forget about what you think you haven't done and appreciate what you have. The notion that possibilities slip away with age is based on a false premise. We are living longer; understanding more about health and fitness; and creative, business, and personal fulfilment often just begin to manifest after, not before, middle age.

4) Appreciate your relative youth

I recall my grandfather turning to me when he was 95 and saying, "You know, Mark, I'd give anything just to be 94 again!" He was only half-joking.

You may not be 20, but neither are you 95 (I'm guessing). We live in a culture that worships youth. This is ironic, considering the average lifespan has never been so long. If you have to focus on age, then enjoy your relative youth because you will always be younger than some.

5) Look to the future

Remember the chap who pinned together the words 'midlife' and 'crisis', Elliott Jaques? As mentioned, he was 48 when he invented the midlife crisis phrase - something else for us to worry about. Anyway, his life didn't stop at 48. Between then and his death aged 86 in 2003, he got married, wrote 12 books, acted as a consultant to the Church of England and the U.S. Army, and produced some of his most original ideas.

Middle age should be a catalyst, not a catastrophe.

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Article written by Mark Tyrrell.

  1. See Ellen Langer's book Counter Clockwise: Mindful Health and the Power of Possibility (2009), in which she describes her extensive and mindboggling research.

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