Is the Midlife Crisis a Myth?

You very likely have heard stories about someone in their forties or fifties buying a flashy new car or in some way attempting to recapture a part of their youth. It’s generally been referred to as the midlife crisis. For many decades it has been mostly understood that happiness declines from the 20s to middle age (40s-60s). The idea of a mid-life crisis has actually spurred a cultural phenomenon and has even been a central theme in many popular movies’ storylines. However, there is new research in the Journal of Developmental Psychology that says the notion of a mid-life crisis is actually a myth.

According to Nancy Galambos, Harvey Krahn, Matt Johnson, and their research team from the University of Alberta in Canada, our happiness actually rises from our teens and early twenties and continues well into adulthood.

The researchers conducted a longitudinal study where they followed the same people over an extended period of time. Previous research did not use this method. Instead, earlier studies had been conducted using cross-sectional data that assesses different people at the same time. These people may have differences in age, race, ethnicity, gender, etc. Galambos et. al state that because they track the same subjects in the longitudinal study over an extended period of time, it provides much more reliable data than simply comparing average happiness scores of different people at different ages. Harvey Krahn states: “I’m not trashing cross-sectional research, but if you want to see how people change as they get older, you have to measure the same individuals over time.”

The findings from their research show that:

  1. People are happier in their early 40s than at age 18.

  2. Happiness increases the most between ages 18-30.

  3. Happiness is higher when people are married and in good health, versus being unemployed and in poor health.

  4. This rise in happiness in general is consistent with the notion that a mid-life crisis is in fact a myth.

One important factor to note about this research study is that the individuals they followed over an extended period of time are from Canada. The question to determine is whether or not these results generalize and apply to Americans? While it’s likely that they do apply to Americans, future research with American subjects is needed in order to confirm this.

So, if we accept that the mid-life crisis is a myth, how do we then explain those stereotypical mid-life crisis behaviors? One possible understanding is that a “crisis” or any meaningful life transition can happen at many points in our lives, whether it is at age 18, 40, or 80. In addition, not everyone is prone to having a significant life crisis.

However, here are some typical life crisis situations that can occur throughout many stages (not only in mid-life) of our lifespan to consider:

  1. Feeling anger or resentment at one’s spouse/partner.

  2. Having a heighted sexual interest, either with one’s partner or someone else.

  3. Having an affair.

  4. A feeling that one’s life is going in the wrong direction.

  5. A desire for a lifestyle change that has more adventure (think of the sports car or participating in thrill-seeking activities).

  6. An interest in recapturing one’s youth and feeling young again.

  7. Wanting to change one’s appearance to look younger.

  8. Having a general sense of identity confusion.

It can feel overwhelming and discouraging to be experiencing a crisis in life, no matter at what age it happens. A life crisis can also take a toll on our relationships with others as well, including our partner. If you or your partner is experiencing some kind of life crisis, it is important to seek out professional help and meet with an experienced therapist. Together, you can investigate the source of the crisis, better understand it, and explore what steps to take to help recover from your situation. This is a much healthier step than impulsively buying that expensive shiny new sports car.

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