The Midlife Calm

You're a man in your forties and you are having an epiphany. Suddenly you see that your life has been meaningless. You take transformative action...

You're a man in your forties and you are having an epiphany. Suddenly you see that your life has been meaningless. You take transformative action. You quit your job, buy a red Porsche, start growing your hair, and move to California with a woman notably younger than you in the passenger seat.

You are having a midlife crisis. We've read and heard about the phenomenon, an alleged commonplace. Many people, usually men, experience a general funk in their middle years and react dramatically; it's one of those awkward passages that happen to humans, we're told. The concept of the pervasive midlife crisis became well established in popular culture as long ago as the 1960s. But it's bunk.

"This sort of revelation experience very rarely happens," says Ronald Kessler, professor of health care policy at Harvard Medical School, "and when it does, it is not linked to midlife. It happens to people who have blinders on, who are out of touch with reality. Someone you hate becomes the vice president instead of you; you're bowled over. You discover your spouse is having an affair; you thought you had a wonderful marriage. Your family and friends probably saw the disappointment coming--realization of what's happening in life does seep in, slowly, to most people. But you were living in a dream world."

Kessler is one of two dozen scholars from several disciplines participating in the MacArthur Foundation Research Network on Successful Midlife Development. They began in 1989 to study middle age--the stretch between ages 30 and 70, with 40 to 60 at its heart--a time of life much less examined than either youth or old age. As part of their ongoing work, they surveyed a nationally representative sample of 7,000 men and women. "We find no evidence," says Kessler, "that crises occur more frequently in midlife than at any other age. In fact, many survey respondents say that their middle years are the best of their lives. Most human beings are happiest at the age of 50."

People are far more likely to experience "midlife calm" than crisis born of a sudden perception that life is meaningless, says Paul Cleary, professor of medical sociology at the medical school and another scholar involved in the MacArthur study. Unlike the "crisis," the midlife calm visits women as well as men. Speaking of himself, Cleary, now 48, recalls the worrying he did about his future when he was in graduate school. "Would I be a total failure or a world-renowned scientist? As it turns out, I'm neither. But I have a good understanding of what I can expect to achieve professionally. Midlife has turned out to be a stable and satisfying time for me professionally and personally."

"Certainly, crises do occur during the middle years," says Kessler. "Couples divorce. Loved ones die. You lose your job. You get cancer. Most people have had a hell of a lot to deal with. But they do pretty well, that's the point. They're immensely resilient. It gives you faith in the human spirit."

~ Christopher Reed 

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