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Midlife Crisis

Science may explain the midlife pandemonium for those rearing Middle Age.

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New sports cars and kept women aren’t the only bellwethers of a midlife crisis. There’s generally a secret checking account, suspicious credit card, and overtime that never shows up on the paycheck. There’s the gym, of course, and the plugs and the rugs and the shameless if not convincing shrugs. But while these are the first in a tranche of tale-tell signs observed in men 45 to 65 years of age, it may surprise you to know they might be doing more than simply reclaiming their youth. For the Midlife Crisis may coincide with something far more primordial.

In 1965, Elliott Jacques, a renowned Canadian psychotherapist, published an essay on working patterns of creative geniuses in which he coined the phrase — Midlife Crisis. Born in Toronto, Jacques studied medicine at Johns Hopkins University and social relations at Harvard. But it was a last-minute enlistment in the Army during WWII where he used that education to establish the Canadian War Office Psychiatry Division, and to apply his gaze to new recruits, enlisted soldiers, and decorated officers. Moreover, he was able to follow and observe these seasoned armed services veterans throughout the course of their lifetime.

Shifts in their behaviors at midlife were so pervasive they became predictable; feelings of dissatisfaction, nostalgia, and depression all coincide with a sudden inability to enjoy life. Concerns over health and appearance, and compulsive attempts to remain youthful, attempt to dial back the inevitable trajectory into the twilight. Even promiscuity during midlife was so common it became a cliché. Considered a psychological theory, rather than a medical diagnosis, Jacques’ Midlife Crisis was manifesting in a plethora of different ways with a single constant. Each and every impulse seemed to connect the middle aged with the young.

Youth > A Gift of Nature

Sigmund Fraud, the father of Psychoanalysis, believed we’re subconsciously driven by the fear of death at middle age. Carl Jung, the father of Modern Analytical Psychology added “... It is when our projected hopes and promises fail to live up to expectations, and the means of our salvation collapses, that the substantive inner conflict of midlife occurs.” But it was the Father of Psychosocial Development who went further still. In the seventh of eight stages, Erik Erikson's theory of psychosocial development squarely coincides and attempts to explain the midlife crisis.

In this stage, men between the ages of 45-65 slowly realize they’re neither young nor old and irrelevant and begin to accept their own mortality. For Erikson, realization and acceptance would trigger a reaction he called Generativity or Stagnation. Those who become stagnant weren’t investing in the growth of either themselves or others, while the generative adult stays engaged. Volunteerism, religious awakenings, and coaching are all venues in which middle aged men seek renewal, whilst depression and descending into mental illness are the consequences of stagnation. These are the two trailheads before the elder man, but Erikson held that the primary psychosocial path is generativity; the desire to engage, extend and expand one's influence in society.

Aging > A Work of Art

The key achievement of middle age, according to Jacques, was to move beyond youthful idealism to what he called “contemplative pessimism” and “constructive resignation.” He argued midlife was when we reach maturity by overcoming our denial of death and human destructiveness.

Less profound explanations have also been offered for midlife dissatisfaction. It’s when children may be leaving the family home and when adults are generationally sandwiched; required to care for children and ageing parents. Chronic illnesses often make their first appearance and losses accelerate. Workplace demands may be peaking.

While age, gender and sexual orientation have all been offered as triggers of a midlife crisis, it seems patently obvious they’re all conspicuous anecdotes that coincide with circumstance. It may be something far and away more basic and biological. Chimpanzees and orangutans aren’t known to suffer from existential dread, empty nest syndrome, gender bias or job stress. Still, they show the same midlife dip in well-being as their human cousins.

Recently, economists and behavioral scientists have studied the pattern of human well-being over the lifespan. They found in dozens of countries well-being is high in youth, falls to a nadir in midlife, and rises again in old age. The reasons for this U-shape is speculative. However, a recent study at least hints at an explanation.

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Alexander Weiss

Planet of the Apes

Alexander Weiss, a psychologist at the University of Edinburgh, UK, and his team recently set out to see if there might be a biological factor involved in the crises. The study, which was published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences has raised eyebrows among some scientists, but according to the authors, the findings suggest that the midlife crisis may have its roots in the biology humans share with our closest evolutionary cousins.

"There's a common understanding that there's a dip in wellbeing in middle age, and that's been found in many datasets across human cultures," says Alex Weiss, a psychologist at Edinburgh University. "We took a step back and asked whether it's possible that instead of the midlife crisis being human-specific, and driven only by social factors, it reflects some evolved tendency for middle-aged individuals to have lower wellbeing."

The team from the US, Japan, Germany and the UK asked zookeepers, carers and others who worked with male and female apes of various ages to complete questionnaires on the animals. The forms included questions about each ape's mood, the enjoyment they gained from socializing, and their success at achieving certain goals. The final question asked how carers would feel about being the ape for a week. They scored their answers from one to seven.

More than 500 apes were included in the study in three separate groups. The first two groups were chimpanzees, with the third made up of orangutans from Sumatra or Borneo. The animals came from zoos, sanctuaries and research centers in the US, Australia, Japan, Canada and Singapore.

When the researchers analyzed the questionnaires, they found that wellbeing in the apes fell in middle age and climbed again as the animals moved into old age. In captivity, great apes often live to 50 or more. The nadir in the animals' wellbeing occurred on average at 28.3 and 27.2 years old for the chimpanzees, and 35.4 years old for the orangutans.

"In all three groups we find evidence that wellbeing is lowest in chimpanzees and orangutans at an age that roughly corresponds to midlife in humans," Weiss said. "On average, wellbeing scores are lowest when animals are around 30 years old."

“Maybe evolution needed us to be at our most dissatisfied in midlife,” says co-author Andrew Oswald, who is based at the University of Warwick, UK. “Unhappiness is a catalyst for change, an opportunity for renewal."

Forever Young

They may not take up surfing or be moving into swanky 55+ communities, but chimpanzees and orangutans do at least appear to share the midlife crisis with their human counterparts.

When the assumptions by which we live are collapsing, if our worldview presents a surprise, chaos ensues. Chaos is the absence of context, and a critical moment to reset the compass. The need for participation, relevancy and purpose is critical at all ages. "A tidal wave isn't always a crisis," Elliot Jacques said. "Sometimes it's an opportunity to ride the pipeline."

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