“Midway upon the journey of our life, I found myself within a forest dark, for the straightforward pathway had been lost.”― Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy.
“All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players; They have their exits and their entrances, And one man in his time plays many parts, His acts being seven ages.”– Shakespeare, As You Like It.
As Shakespeare correctly pointed out, people change during aging and play many parts during life. Evolution wants us to come into this life, compete, reproduce, take care of our young, decline, and die. The phase transitions are often very uncomfortable. Very often you can see happy families, where after a decade into the marriage, the husband starts acting irrationally, starts seeking the new thrills and exciting experiences, and often leaves for a younger woman. Is there a way to be more mindful about these phase transitions, prepare for them, or try to avoid them altogether? I previously proposed a few tips on slowing down or even reversing psychological aging but in this article I would like to look a bit closer at the very common phenomenon – the mid-life crisis, and how to avoid it or even use it as a way to improve yourself.
For all that literature is filled with references to the feeling of being in a “dark wood” that often strikes when we reach midlife, the very concept of a midlife crisis has a surprisingly modern history. In 1957, Canadian psychoanalysis Elliot Jacques first presented a paper to the British Psychoanalytical Society describing his case for a “midlife crisis” (though he never claimed to have invented the term).
According to Jaques, people become vulnerable during the middle years of life after completing “the first phase of adult life.” Much like Dante’s “dark wood,” people reaching middle-age find themselves much more aware that they had completed much of what they had intended to accomplish as young adults. Whether this included having a family, a stable household, a successful career, etc., they suddenly realized that they needed to consider what came next in their lives. Death and decline, which had seemed impossibly far away when we were in our twenties, suddenly seems much closer and, for many of us, coming to terms with that is a challenge few of us are ready to face.
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One case Jacques described in his paper involved a 36-year-old patient undergoing psychoanalysis. “Up till now, life has seemed an endless upward slope, with nothing but the distant horizon in view,” the patient told his therapist. “Now suddenly I seem to have reached the crest of the hill, and there, stretching ahead is the downward slope with the end of the road in sight—far enough away, it’s true—but there is death observably present at the end.”
Jacques also described the work of other prominent psychologists such as Carl Jung and Erik Erikson to show how poorly prepared many people are in coping with the challenges of growing older. Instead, many people are left with a desperate need to stave off old age for as long as possible. A need that powers the different “defensive fantasies” many people use to convince themselves that they were still young and desirable. “The compulsive attempts, in many men and women reaching middle age, to remain young, the hypochondriacal concern over health and appearance, the emergence of sexual promiscuity in order to prove youth and potency, the hollowness and lack of genuine enjoyment of life, and the frequency of religious concern, are familiar patterns,” he wrote. “They are attempts at a race against time.”
Sadly, Jaques’s 1957 paper (which would not be published until eight years later in the International Journal of Psychoanalysis) failed to attract much notice. Even when he bolstered his arguments with data from over three hundred creative artists along with cases from his clinical practice, Jacques’s professional colleagues were not that impressed with what they heard. Or, at least, not at first.
In the years since Jacques first published his research, his work on the midlife crisis s inspired countless studies into lifespan psychology, not to mention being regularly mentioned in famous books by authors such as Gail Sheehy and Daniel Levinson. Considering he died in 2003, Jaques also lived long enough to see how cosmetic surgery and a whole host of other anti-aging nostrums have become part of a multi-billion dollar industry. Something that would not have surprised him in the least.
But, for all that the midlife crisis has become part of popular culture across the globe, does it truly exist? As part of his research into the various biological and psychological changes that come with middle age, University of Exeter physician and historian Mark Jackson came to some surprising conclusions. As he noted in his recent book Broken Dreams (also an entertaining Royal Society lecture), Jackson showed that the very concept of a midlife crisis is primarily cultural rather than biological.
Granted, women reaching their middle years go through a distinctly biological transition known as menopause, with a resulting end to menstruation and assorted physiological changes. But, despite the popularity of terms such as “male menopause” or “male climacteric,” any evidence that men go through something similar is spurious at best. Unless that is, you consider such changes as male pattern baldness and middle-age spread as somehow being equivalent to what women experience.
But the real driving force behind the growing popularity of the “midlife crisis” meme stemmed from the simple fact that people were living longer. Through “three-score and ten” was considered an axiom even in Biblical times, the reality was that far too many people never managed to live that long due to the dizzying array of diseases that could strike at any age. As recently as 1900, a man had only a 50-50 chance of living to 60 or beyond. That meant that people were expected to live fast and achieve as much as possible by the time they reached 50 since they were unlikely to live much longer than that. As a result, the concept of a “midlife crisis” would likely have had no meaning back then.
By the early 20th century, though, this was starting to change rapidly. Better medicine, better nutrition, and better economic opportunities meant life expectancy rose quickly, at least in developed nations. By the 1930s, for example, most people could expect to live to 60 and, living much longer than that was suddenly much more feasible. So, when American journalist Walter B. Pitkin wrote the self-help book, Life Begins At Forty in 1933, it became a best-seller. Granted, Pitkin’s book was mostly about how people could live long and productive lives if they had the right attitude. The notion of a “midlife crisis” was still decades away.
However, by Elliot Jacque’s time, the average life expectancy had risen to the “three-score and ten” mark for most people, with the average life expectancy still growing steadily by more than 2.3 years per decade. Even in developing nations, life expectancy rose thanks to better health care, improved sanitation, and a decline in extreme poverty. And so, Elliot Jacque’s concept of a midlife crisis finally took off simply because the world was ready for it.
It also helped that many of the old realities about life and work were also starting to change. More women than ever were entering the workplace, and with longer lifespans, the notion of marriage as “til death do you part” was quickly changing as well. Also, more writers than ever were popularizing the idea of a midlife crisis as something that all people would face as they grew older. In her 1967 book, Middle Age Crisis, author Barbara Fried wrote that the crisis was “as natural for those in their 40s as teething is for a younger age group.”
So, what does all this mean for those of us who are approaching our middle years (or beyond? For that matter, what does “mid-life crisis” even mean, considering that the average life span has risen so profoundly in the past century alone? Not only is the very concept of “mid-life” is already being radically transformed by recent medical advances, with even more revolutionary advances that will come in your lifetime. Even with these advances, many people are only now realizing that they will likely live long enough to have multiple careers (or marriages?) over the course of a very long life. This means that what was seen as a “crisis” in Elliot Jacques’s is really just an inevitable consequence of growing older and embracing the life changes that are a part of living longer.
If you have been reading my recent blog posts, you are familiar with some of the tips and tricks that may help you live longer. I personally rely on Young.AI system by a company I advice, Deep Longevity, to help me track and manage aging. While there is an abundance of strategies for looking younger, which may be somewhat beneficial for keeping psychologically younger, besides diet, sleep, and exercise, there are not that many promising longevity interventions. And, many of these interventions are highly-experimental. One of this tricks is to reverse psychological aging is stay on top of the latest advances in longevity technology. Today is the third day of the week-long conference on aging research in the pharmaceutical industry, the 8th Aging Research for Drug Discovery transpiring online and on site at the University of Copenhagen. The conference covers the many areas of aging research, artificial intelligence, and longevity medicine, and you can watch some of the lectures from 2020 online. Some of the 2021 lectures will also be posted soon. Another resource where in just 3 hours you can get and introduction to longevity medicine is the free Longevity Medicine course, which, while designed for busy medical professionals, should be accessible to anyone with a high school degree. Intimate understanding of these advances may reinforce your own trust in science and technology. Developing an optimistic attitude towards the future, stretching the longevity expectations, and staying in touch with the latest advances in science and technology is the first step towards psychologic rejuvenation and overcoming the midlife crisis.