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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.”
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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.
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.