NEW YORK – Are you feeling down about middle age? Do you find yourself thinking that time is hurtling and you’ll never reach your goals — or, perhaps more distressingly, that they don’t even fit who you are anymore?
If you’re in the age range of roughly 40 to 65, such angst is hardly unique. Indeed, it was back in 1965 that French-Canadian psychoanalyst Elliott Jacques coined the phrase “midlife crisis” to describe such potent symptoms.
In Jacques’ view, midlife is the period when we face finitude — and struggle emotionally with the fading of our youthful dreams for great accomplishment.
Jacques, a poetic writer, forcefully observed: “The individual has reached the summit of life and sees a declining path before him with death at the end. This results in a crisis, stronger in some than others, connected with having to accept the reality of one’s death. It’s a period of anguish and depression.”
Perhaps not coincidentally, Jacques was nearing 50 when he published his influential article. But it wasn’t until the mid-1970s, with the hugely best-selling “Passages” by Gail Sheehy, that the term was popularized. An American journalist, she offered an alarming, nearly apocalyptic picture.
For example, her book’s jacket copy described the “Forlorn 40s” as “dangerous years when the dreams of youth demand reassessment … and sexual panic is common.” Sheehy based her dark conclusions on interviews. As baby boomers around the world entered their 30s, they internalized Passages’ fearsome drama, and came to expect a “midlife crisis” as surely as they expected to lose their youthful bodies. The term soon entered the common language — and remains there around the globe.
Of course, mass culture is shaped by more than best-selling books, and Hollywood has produced a stream of popular movies on midlife crisis. Perhaps the first was “10,” a 1979 comedy starring Dudley Moore, playing a songwriter with a severe case of marital restlessness who falls instantly in love with dazzling Bo Derek. “Woman in Red,” starring Gene Wilder in 1984, echoed a similar theme.
Over the years, cinematic portrayals of midlife gloom have included “The Big Chill” starring Kevin Costner and William Hurt, “American Beauty” starring Kevin Spacey, “High Fidelity” starring John Cusack, “Lost in Translation” starring Bill Murray, and, more recently, “Solitary Man” starring Michael Douglas.
In an interview promoting “A Single Man” — about a professor in 1960s Los Angeles who suddenly loses his partner — actor Colin Firth quipped: “I could relate to George’s midlife crisis because mine has been going on since I was about 30. I have been in one for at least 20 years.”
Indeed, the topic has often been parodied, even in movies such as “Enlightenment Guaranteed,” which depicts two naive German brothers who fly to Japan to find inner peace in a Zen Buddhist monastery but immediately get lost in Tokyo.
Real midlife turmoil is hardly amusing.The good news is that current psychological research suggests that less than 25 percent of men and women experience a personal crisis during middle age, and less than 10 percent overall relate it to their chronological age or aging.
Also, investigators like Brandeis University’s Margaret Lachman have found that our individual personality and prior history of severe stress are the best predictors of who will suffer a “crisis” during midlife.
Today, the rise of positive psychology has shifted attention to what its founder Martin Seligman of the University of Pennsylvania calls “flourishing” during our adult years.
Though much is known about the pains of midlife like divorce and job loss, little information exists about the happiest moments of this period. To gain scientific knowledge on this matter, I’ve recently led an international research team focusing on midlife peak experiences in the United States and South America. Additional research is under way in Europe and Asia.
Over 250 men and women of diverse occupational and ethnic backgrounds were asked in a survey to describe a recent experience of joy and its impact on their life. The results are intriguing and surprising. Peaks involving interpersonal joy were overwhelmingly most common: more than all others combined.
These often entailed specific life-events like a wedding anniversary celebration, the birth of a child/grandchild, a family reunion or the college graduation of one’s son or daughter.
Many participants also reported less time-specific peaks of interpersonal joy, such as feeling romantic love for their partner, mentoring a younger colleague or student, nurturing someone infirm back to health or playing with grandchildren.
The second-most frequent were peak experiences involving achievement in the domains of academics, work or finances — such as earning a university degree at age 40, achieving a professional license as a therapist or pilot, or finally starting one’s own business.
Also relatively frequent were peaks of personal growth, particularly foreign travel or making a life-changing decision. Some reported an inspiring encounter with nature or returning to a favorite place of their childhood.
Whatever the particular trigger, midlife peak experiences almost invariably had a strong, uplifting and enduring effect.
Moments of joyfulness in midlife are hardly random, but come through particular kinds of experiences; cross-cultural research shows that several are most prevalent. To maximize your happiness, here are four tips for bringing these into your day-to-day life:
• Strengthen interpersonal joy. Celebrations and trips with family members, and romantic times with your special one, are among the greatest sources of delight. Their impact is also long-lasting. Certainly, these events may take careful planning, but it’s worth it.
• Achieve a personal goal. We all need to feel a sense of accomplishment, especially as the years behind us begin to pile up. Have you had a longtime goal but never fulfilled it — learning a foreign language, taking up painting or a musical instrument, or mastering a sport? Now is the time to act. You’ll feel great when you reach your goal.
• Visit a place of your childhood. In our 24/7 society today, it’s crucial to break free of routine to remember what most inspires us. Among the best ways for doing so is through “homecoming”: re-experiencing a nostalgic site of our early years. Allow yourself ample time for savoring. Bring along a journal, and write all your impressions, memories and insights from your present perspective.
• Encounter nature. As civilization becomes increasingly urban, it’s vital to re-connect with the natural world. By opening your senses to its power and beauty. As “deep ecologists” insist — your mental and physical well-being will be enhanced. Mountain experiences seem especially potent in this regard.
Edward Hoffman, Ph.D., is an adjunct associate psychology professor at Yeshiva University, and coauthor of the forthcoming “Positive Psychology: The Science of Happiness and Flourishing” (Cengage). Email: firstname.lastname@example.org