When he was 44, Adam Earnheardt “got healthy,” which included getting in shape to run a 5K. At 50, he decluttered his house, cut back on work and started spending more quality time with his wife and children.
The Youngstown, Ohio, college professor and writer, now 51, says those changes were reactions to two separate "midlife crises." The first, he says, came when he was diagnosed with early coronary artery disease while parenting four young children: “I was, like, I want to be around. … I feel like I’m going to die in five years if I don’t do something.” The second crisis, he says, occurred during the COVID-19 pandemic, when he was confined at home and had lots of time to reassess his priorities. He started purging the things that distracted him from what mattered — in two ways. “I was not only decluttering my house,” he explains. “I was decluttering my life.”
If Earnheardt’s upheavals sound nothing like stereotypical midlife crises involving impulsive divorces, expensive sports cars or ill-considered toupees, they are familiar to psychologists who study well-being across the human lifespan. Many say the negative stereotype about midlife is largely a myth (or at least a huge exaggeration). Some psychologists even point to research showing that midlife is a particularly satisfying time for many.
Join today and save 43% off the standard annual rate. Get instant access to discounts, programs, services, and the information you need to benefit every area of your life.
It is true that many people in midlife — roughly defined as ages 40 to 60 or so — are stressed out, and for good reason, says David Almeida, a professor of human development and family studies at Penn State University. “Midlife is a time of life where you're responsible for a lot of people, and people are relying on you,” he notes. That pivotal position in the world — in families, workplaces and the community — is the reason midlife can sometimes feel like “a daily crisis."
And right now, as the world continues to reel from the pandemic, Almeida says, midlife demands are “on steroids.”
A brief history of the midlife crisis
The term “midlife crisis” was born in 1965, when Canadian psychoanalyst Elliott Jaques published an academic paper called “Death and the Mid-Life Crisis.” In it, he wrote, “At age 35 the individual has reached the summit of life and sees a declining path before him, with death at its end. This results in a crisis, stronger in some than others. … It is a period of anguish and depression.”
The idea that midlife is a time of a crisis was popularized in the mid-1970s by Gail Sheehy’s book Passages: Predictable Crises of Adult Life. From there, the concept took root in popular culture — think Dudley Moore chasing a young Bo Derek in 1979’s 10.
Solid research on midlife well-being was slower to emerge. But when it did, early results painted a rosier picture. People at midlife were stable or gaining in life satisfaction, according to “The Midlife in the United States” (MIDUS) study, which started publishing findings in 1999 from an initial survey of more than 7,000 people. Subsequent MIDUS reports and other studies that have followed people over time have yet to find convincing evidence that contentment drops between early adulthood and midlife, says Margie Lachman, a professor of psychology at Brandeis University in Massachusetts.
Other kinds of studies, mostly from economists, paint a darker picture. These studies, which ask people of different ages to rate their life satisfaction or happiness, often on a 10-point scale, repeatedly find a distinctive pattern: Midlife adults in multiple countries report lower well-being than either younger or older adults, creating a so-called “U-shaped curve” in happiness.
“The evidence is completely overpowering. … It’s not even worth debating anymore,” says David Blanchflower, a professor of economics at Dartmouth College. Blanchflower pinpoints the low point of adult happiness at about age 48.
And yet the debate continues. In a recent critique, Lachman and colleagues say evidence of the U-shaped curve “is not as robust” as proponents claim. For example, they say, different studies find the low point at different ages, ranging from the 30s to as old as 70.
Even if the midlife dip is real, it does not mean that all midlifers, or even average midlifers, are depressed or in crisis, Lachman points out. “This kind of makes people nervous about getting older and unnecessarily worried about how bad midlife is going to be.”
The stress factor: Getting worse?
In her book Did I Say That Out Loud: Midlife Indignities and How to Survive Them, Kristin van Ogtrop lists 31 reasons a midlife person might have trouble sleeping. They include children, spouses, parents, anxiety, depression, climate change, the news and “free-form despair.”
Van Ogtrop, 57, a former magazine editor turned literary agent who lives in Westchester County, New York, says that when she finds herself awake these days at 3 a.m., she has to ask herself, “Is that midlife? Is that hormones? The pandemic?”
Psychologists say it’s too soon to say which age group has been hit hardest by pandemic stress, but some initial surveys suggest that teens and young adults are struggling the most. The American Psychological Association's October 2021 report "Stress in America" found that 79 percent of adults from Generation Z (born in 1997 or later) reported having "experienced behavior changes in the past month as a result of stress." That compares with just 37 percent of Boomers.
In data collected before the pandemic, though, Penn State's Almeida found that midlife stress was already dramatically higher for today's midlifers than it was for previous generations at midlife — and there’s every reason, he says, to think it’s gotten worse. In his study, people ages 45 to 64 in 2012 reported nearly 20 percent more stressful days than people the same age reported in 1995.
While younger adults were significantly more stressed than midlifers in the earlier survey, the two groups were equally stressed in the later round, Almeida says. He surmises that fallout from the Great Recession of 2007–2009 may have hit midlifers especially hard because of their pivotal roles in families and at work. The same thing could be happening during the pandemic, he says, as midlifers try to manage all the disruptions befalling their children, their aging parents and their workplaces. He’s analyzing new data to find out.
There’s other evidence that recent decades have been hard on some midlife Americans. Most notably, researchers have found that “deaths of despair,” from suicides, drugs and alcohol, have spiked among middle-aged white people, especially those with little education.
“There are a lot of people who do suffer in midlife,” Lachman says. But, she adds, it’s also true that “many people consider midlife the prime of life.”
Midlife change can be a good thing
Douglas LaBier, a business psychologist and psychoanalyst in Washington, D.C., says he sees many midlife patients who make productive changes in their lives. Some, he says, fit the old crisis stereotype: Struggling with unresolved pasts and uncertain futures, “they escape through something that looks momentarily pleasurable … the new car, the trophy wife, drinking or drugs.”
But many more people, he says, make positive changes as “they start to feel a kind of longing for other dimensions of [themselves].” For one person that might mean changing careers; for another it might mean taking up woodworking. Some people get divorces that leave them happier; others find new ways to connect with spouses or partners.
That’s what happened with Earnheardt when he and his wife, both professors at Youngstown State University, found themselves enjoying “date nights at home” — featuring chocolate fondue and karaoke — organized by their children during the early months of the pandemic. “It just snapped in me that this is what I need, this is what I’ve been craving,” he says. He adds that the realization has inspired him to rebalance his life to put family first.
Van Ogtrop has also done some midlife rebalancing, starting with quitting her job as editor in chief of Real Simple magazine several years ago. She quit, she says, amid “deep dissatisfaction” with a job that was increasingly about firing people to deal with shrinking budgets. “It’s hard to start a new career in your 50s,” she notes, but in her case it’s been worthwhile.
In her book, van Ogtrop writes about other midlife hardships and annoyances, including root canals, colonoscopies, arm fat and not knowing how to use your smart phone as smartly as your kids do.
And yet, she says, she’d take her 50s over her unsettled 20s any day. While “everyone has really different life circumstances,” she notes, her own midlife is good: “With every year, I’m more grateful. I’m more grateful for the days I wake up and nothing hurts.”
Kim Painter is a contributing writer who specializes in health and psychology. She frequently writes for AARP's Staying Sharp and previously worked as a health reporter and columnist at USA Today.