The cover story in the December, 2014 Atlantic is an article by Jonathan Rauch entitled “The Real Roots of the Midlife Crisis.” His description of midlife, though, is not so much of a crisis but of a low point in the road, a dip that for some is barely perceptible but that for many sinks to dejection. I’d term it a midlife slough rather than a crisis.

Evidence has accumulated for some time that life satisfaction tends to decrease in midlife. Across many cultures and different research samples, happiness tends to decline during the early decades of adulthood, reaching a low point in the mid-forties. It then increases into late adulthood, until the seventies or so, when illness and disability are likely to put a damper on one’s sense of contentment. This pattern of age-related changes in life satisfaction is known as the “happiness U-curve.” Researchers measure happiness in various ways; the measurement that reveals this pattern is not a moment-by-moment report of one’s mood but responses to a question like the following:  “All things considered, how satisfied are you with your life as a whole these days?”

The Happiness U-Curve. Image from

The Happiness U-Curve. Image from

The U-curve turns up most often when variables such as marital status, income, and employment status are controlled for; consult the article for a discussion of the controversy over using such statistical methods. What interests me is the question of why happiness is likely to dip in the forties, then bounce back. Rauch mentions a factor that Daniel Levinson, one of the first researchers to describe the midlife crisis, considered crucial; increasing awareness of one’s mortality. Having reached the midpoint of our likely lifespan, we are more aware that we won’t live forever. This prompts a review of what we’ve done with our lives up to this point, a review that for most of us is disconcerting. Rauch describes his own life review:

“In my 40s, I found I was obsessively comparing my life with other people’s: scoring and judging myself, and counting up the ways in which I had fallen behind in a race. Where was my best seller? My literary masterpiece? Barack Obama was younger than I, and look where he was!”

When we compare our accomplishments to those of others, or with our earlier expectations, we easily see all the ways we fall short. There’s a beautiful passage in George Eliot’s Middlemarch that poignantly describes what has happened to us:

“For in the multitude of middle-aged men who go about their vocations in a daily course determined for them much in the same way as the tie of their cravats, there is always a good number who once meant to shape their own deeds and alter that world a little. The story of their coming to be shapen after the average and fit to be packed by the gross, is hardly ever told even in their own consciousness.”

Indeed, the disillusionment of middle age is of this sort; we hoped to be in control, to alter the world, but come to realize that we are more shaped than shapers.

This is the first diminishment: recognizing that neither we nor our accomplishments are exceptional. When we then think of those accomplishments in light of our eventual deaths and the centuries afterwards, during which all we did will be forgotten, our little stack of successes seems even punier. Eventually, all we can do is acknowledge that we will never be what we dreamed of being. Rauch notes that in his fifties, “the expectation of scaling ever greater heights has faded, and with it my sense of disappointment and failure.” Acceptance salves the pain of midlife disillusionment.

How do we attain acceptance, though? I hope to write more about this in a future blog post at Beyond Halfway.