I like to think I am pretty good with words—at least on paper, if not always while speaking on the spot (a common characteristic of introverts). But, for the past several years, I had not been able to find a label that I felt accurately described the sense of internal unrest that that been nagging me. Sure, there are aspects of my life that I would like to be different, and I am actively working to improve some of them, but it was more pervasive, if subtler, than that. I felt guilty for my unsettledness. There was no good reason. What was the deal?
Just after the first of the year, I read Jonathan Rauch’s The Happiness Curve: Why Life Gets Better After 50, and I felt like he was reading my mind. So often throughout the book, I found myself saying, “Yes!” or “That’s exactly how I feel.” And he gave me a new vocabulary for identifying and explaining—even if only to myself—this underlying nag of discontent.
Rauch found himself feeling the same way in his 40s. He was a successful journalist who was in a loving relationship. Outwardly, he had achieved so much of what he wanted to accomplish, and life looked good. Overall, it felt good, too. He appreciated what he had. That was why he felt so bad about feeling bad.
Yet he also felt like there was more that he should have done and achieved and that time to do so was running out. He decided to dive into this nagging feeling and learn more.
His own informal research and conversations with many experts in human growth and development, lifespan, aging, psychology and even primatology revealed that some level of this slump in the 40s to early 50s is not only common, but normal. We’re familiar with the stereotype of “midlife crises,” usually involving red sports cars, but, although, like most stereotypes, this one holds true in some cases, the reality is that for most people it is less dramatic than a crisis. It’s more like an underlying sense of unease and disappointment. In most cases it is not precipitated by any momentous event; it just sort of creeps in and makes itself known. There is even evidence that this midlife melancholy has a basis in biology. Experts who study our primate relatives have recognized that middle-aged chimpanzees and orangutans exhibit signs of a slump that resembles what humans experience.
Since “crisis” doesn’t accurately describe the more common—yet largely undiscussed—phenomenon, Rauch searched for a word that better captured it—slump, melancholy, dissatisfaction. All of those fit, but the one that resonated with me the most was “malaise”—”a general feeling of discomfort, illness, or uneasiness whose exact cause is difficult to identify,” according to Oxford Languages. While “illness” doesn’t fit my personal experience (another reason to be grateful!), “discomfort” and “uneasiness” certainly do, and there is no single, easily identifiable cause, which is why I believe it feels so shameful and ungrateful to discuss.
Rauch’s book convinced me that we need to be able to talk about it, though. Just knowing that it is common, even close to universal, albeit to varying degrees, mitigates the sense of shame. So, I decided to write about what I read in Rauch’s book and to own up to my own experience with this midlife malaise. And I also wanted to share hope.
Rauch’s research revealed that, while this midlife malaise is prevalent and unpleasant, those who study the phenomenon have consistently found that it occurs in the shape of a U-curve, with a peak in the 20s, a gradual decline to a nadir that varies from the mid-40s to mid50s, averaging around age 50 worldwide, to a gradual incline into the 70s. One reason for this seems to be the development of wisdom, an emerging area in science. Viewed through a lens of wisdom, midlife malaise can best be described as a passage from one phase of adulthood to another. It makes me think of a term we hear in higher education: “the murky middle.” In higher ed this refers to sophomore and junior years, when college students are most at risk for dropping out.
Midlife can feel murky but viewed as a passage to a state of greater contentment with the potential benefit of wisdom, it feels more normative and hopeful.
Monika Ardelt, an Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Florida, is one of the experts Jonathan Rauch consulted. She studies wisdom and considers it to be a “combination of personal qualities” that she divides into three categories: cognitive, reflective and affective. She defines cognitive wisdom as “an understanding of life and a desire to know the truth.” In action this is a recognition of both the positive and negative aspects of life and an ability to make decisions in the face of uncertainty. Reflective wisdom is “a perception of phenomena and events from multiple perspectives.” This may manifest as accepting responsibility for one’s own circumstances. Finally, affective wisdom is “sympathetic and compassionate love for others,” which is pretty self-explanatory.
In a 2014 article in The Atlantic, Rauch gives a good synopsis of the topics in the book, including reasons why it is important to share this information. He says, “The story of the U-curve . . . is a story not of chaos or disruption but of a difficult yet natural transition to a new equilibrium. And I find that when I tell troubled middle-aged people about it, their reaction is one of relief. Just knowing that the phenomenon is common can be therapeutic.” He notes that some of the experts he consulted agreed that the awareness of this normal passage can make an important difference in mitigating both the suffering that it can cause and the regrettable decisions that can result when people blame relationships, jobs or other life circumstances for their discontent. That’s not to say those things don’t ever need to be addressed or changed, but they don’t always, and making those changes should be well considered, rather than rash. Princeton researcher Hannes Schwandt said, “Part of your disappointment is driven by disappointment itself.”
As Rauch says, “People thrash around for explanations, which can lead to attribution errors and bad decisions. And those, of course, can bring on what really is a stereotypical midlife crisis, complete with lurching change and ill-judged behavior.”
Ultimately, Rauch recommends caution when making major decisions in midlife. He outlines this strategy:
- Be careful: Because of the underlying sense of dissatisfaction, there can be a tendency to make reckless decisions, upending lives. This could be the right direction, but it very well might not be. It might be best to take a wait-and-see approach.
- Step, don’t leap: Make changes gradually. Build on your life experience to this point, rather then abruptly throwing everything away.
- Reach out: As is true in most things in life, shame is reduced when we can talk openly and especially when we realize that others experience the same thing.
- Consider coaching: As Rauch describes, “coach and client work as allies to better align the client’s life and values. That approach is well suited to those who feel successful yet unfulfilled.” This can be very helpful in making reasoned changes that reflect the client’s growing wisdom as she/he progresses through the passage of midlife.
- Forewarned is forearmed: It’s too late for those of us who are already working our way through midlife malaise, but being more open about this phenomenon can help those younger people who have not yet reached that point. Just knowing that it might be coming and that it is normal can minimize the misery it can provoke.
- If in doubt . . . wait: Once again, the best approach may be patience. While it may be hard to tease out the difference between patience and complacency, it can be valuable to proceed with caution and wait and see what changes really need to be made and what actually is okay or even good.
Have you experienced this midlife malaise? Are you on the upside of the U-curve? I feel, at 51, like I am starting—just starting—to ride up the other side of the U. Reading Rauch’s book gave me hope and helped to normalize my feelings. I still have moments when I feel ungrateful because of the discontent I feel, but I have released some of the unhelpful mental habits that tormented me more a few years ago, like comparing my accomplishments to those of similar or younger age. We all live our own lives and create our own paths as we go. No two of us are exactly alike. We are all strong in some areas and not as strong as others. But I firmly believe that we can all make positive contributions in the world and that there is a difference we are all meant to make. This may look dramatically different from one person to another, so comparing is pointless at best and masochistic at worst.
If you can relate with the concept of midlife malaise, I recommend Rauch’s book. It is excellent and enjoyable to read, and I found it tremendously helpful.
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