HARVARD GAZETTE ARCHIVES
By William J. Cromie
In 1989, two dozen scholars set out to study the much-touted midlife crisis. After interviewing some 15,000 people over eight years, they couldn't find it.
It's largely a myth, they conclude.
"The results are quite striking," says Ronald Kessler, professor of health care policy at the Medical School. "We find no evidence that crises occur more frequently in midlife than at any other age. Most people do pretty darn well; in fact, many of them say these are the best years of their lives."
The anxiety and uncertainty associated with youth have passed, and the infirmities of old age still lie over the horizon.
"In middle age, you've come to terms with your life," notes Kessler, who is 49. "You accept yourself and can enjoy what you have. The surprising fact is that most people today are happiest at the age of 50."
Paul Cleary, a professor of medical sociology at the Medical School, refers to this period as "midlife calm."
Not everyone is calm and happy, of course. The rodent of regret gnaws on the minds of those who never reached their goals. They didn't write that best-seller, make vice president, or attract the mate they wanted.
"Most of these people were out of touch with reality," Kessler claims. "They should have seen the disappointment coming; their family and friends probably did."
The reassuring conclusions about middle-age come from an ongoing study supported by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. "Midlife -- the years between 30 and 70, with 40 to 60 at its core -- is perhaps the least studied and most ill-defined of any period in life," notes Oliver Brim, director of the study. "It abounds with images and myths -- the 'midlife crisis,' 'change of life,' 'empty nest syndrome,' and more. But we have little . . . understanding of what really happens. The primary objective of our Network on Successful Midlife Development is to identify the major factors that permit some people to achieve good health, psychological well-being, and social responsibility during this time of life."
Both Sexes Involved
The term "midlife crisis" caught on in the 1960s and 1970s, popularized by books like The Seasons of a Man's Life by Daniel Levinson and Gail Sheehy's best-seller Passages. Life's cycle was seen as a set routine of getting married, having children, rising through the ranks at work, and moving to the suburbs. The crisis occurred when a man quit his job, let his hair grow long, bought a sports car, and headed toward California, often with a youthful companion.
"That's not where the action is today," Kessler comments. "Life patterns are much more diversified."
Men take early retirement to "do what I've always wanted to do." A woman might become a new mother, or a grandmother, or both in her middle years, or she might start a second career or a business when the kids leave.
Whereas the midlife crisis was considered a male phenomenon, both males and females share the midlife calm. The myth of the "empty nest" blues has been replaced by a full house of stability, freedom, and opportunity. With children gone, the empty space becomes breathing space.
Even the "change of life" turns out to be less daunting than once portrayed. "Most women don't want any more children by that point," says Ravenna Helson from the University of California, Berkeley, who surveyed 700 female college graduates, ages 26 to 80.
Crises of Other Kinds
Not everyone finds a soft place to fall in mid-age, however. One of the toughest situations is losing a job you've held for many years.
"That's a different thing than a chronic feeling that life is meaningless, but it is a crisis," Kessler says. "It's very difficult to get a job when you're in your 50s. Fortunately, this does not happen to an enormous number of people; it's not a national phenomenon."
For any midlifer who loses a job, the worst time is after he or she has been told but before the actual layoff. "Fear of what might happen is much worse than what does happen," Kessler continues. "Maybe you don't get as good a job as you had before, but you don't starve. You suck it up and go on with life."
People face all sorts of setbacks. One of the worst, notes Kessler, is finding out a spouse is having an affair. Others include divorce, disability, death of a loved one, rape, battering, cancer, and stroke.
"Even if the general funk of a midlife crisis is absent, it's very common to have a tough life," Kessler says. "It's amazing what a typical person goes through but survives. The thing that strikes you is how enormously resilient men and women are. It gives you faith in the human spirit."
In the U.S., the human spirit has been aided by decades of prosperity and advances in education and health care. "It can be terrible to be in the 50s in some nations," Kessler points out, "but in this country most midlifers have access to financial plans that enable them to save for a comfortable retirement, and they can get adequate medical care."
However, Cleary and John Ayanian, assistant professor of medicine, find a tendency for midlifers to underestimate their health risks. "As a general rule," Cleary says, "only 20 percent of people believe they have a higher than average risk for heart attack or cancer. (Not statistically likely.) Even those at very high risk underestimate their situation."
Fantasy vs. Reality
Healthy people with good jobs who experience the "life-is-meaningless" type of crisis are those with unrealistic goals and fantasies. "They are people who are not engaged with life," Kessler says. "They hide from things that could lead to distress, and don't realistically monitor their progress. When reality hits them, it's a real crisis."
Take inevitable physical decline, for example. Kessler relates the story of a man in his late 30s who had been a good basketball player in college. Still fancying himself as a quick and agile player, he took on a 12-year-old nephew at a family reunion, and the kid easily beat him.
"He was crushed and moaned that he was 'getting old,' " Kessler comments. "There's nothing you can do about getting old, but you can keep your expectations in line with reality."
Some midlifers go on expecting to become a vice president, best-selling author, or millionaire long after everyone else knows they'll never make it. "We've found that midlifers who give up on impossible dreams often feel a sense of relief," Kessler notes. "You must keep engaged with family, friends, and community, monitor your progress, and adjust your hopes and dreams to reality."
Cleary, now 48, remembers the anxiety he felt about his future while in graduate school. "I didn't know if I'd be a total failure or a world-renowned scientist," he says. "As it turned 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." Kessler feels the same way.
Orville Brim, the study director, advises people to "live a life of just manageable difficulty." Goals set too low often lead to a boring life; those set too high can produce bitter disappointment.
Brim's father is a case in point. He made enough money as a farmer to pursue his goal of being a teacher. Eventually, he became president of Ohio State University. After retiring, Brim moved to Maine and started a small farm. At age 90, blindness took his sight. He then arranged to have a window with a southern exposure in his bedroom, and he grew flowers in a window garden.
"Mr. Brim went from 2,000 acres, to 5 acres, to a window box," Kessler notes. "He adjusted his life so he always had a reason to go on, but within the limits of his abilities. The lesson to take away is: reach as far as you can reach, and if you can't reach any farther, make the most of it."
Copyright 1998 President and Fellows of Harvard College