In his 1965 article “Death and the Midlife Crisis” for the International Journal of Psychoanalysis, Canadian psychologist Elliott Jaques coined the term “midlife crisis” to describe the period in which one grapples with their place in the world, their remaining years and what’s left to accomplish.

 It quickly morphed from theory to ubiquity, taking root in popular culture as a life stage transition that some navigate with more grace than others. According to Jaques, symptoms could include “compulsive attempts” to feel young, religious awakenings, promiscuity, “hypochondriacal concern over health and appearance,” and general life dissatisfaction. In 2016, University of Alberta Psychology Professor Nancy Galambos released a study debunking the midlife crisis theory and arguing that people are actually happier in midlife. But not everyone agrees. John Helliwell, Professor Emeritus of Economics at the University of British Columbia, studies happiness and says there’s a distinct decline in midlife.

The two met with YouAreUNLTD to discuss: Midlife crisis, myth or reality?

Nancy Galambos: It’s a myth. People can have a crisis in midlife, which we might then call a midlife crisis, but they can have a crisis at any point in time – midlife doesn’t hold primacy for crises.

John Helliwell: I agree people can have bad times at any stage of their life, but on average, people are less satisfied with their lives in middle age. Life evaluations typically start higher, fall in midlife and rise later on: It’s a “U” shape. 

NG: Humans like to explain human behaviour, so if we know someone who has some sort of crisis, then we want to say, “It’s midlife crisis! It’s due to age; it’s what happens in this period.” In midlife they might look into the past and think about how they measured up or if they’ve achieved what they wanted to. That might determine satisfaction, and how they look toward and approach the future. But it’s not a crisis – that’s just a way of categorizing new issues that emerge in midlife. 

JH: People’s satisfaction with their state of life is related to how they are doing relative to what they expected themselves to have done, and often there are age limits. … I should have achieved “X” by age 30, or 40, or 50. Of course that is going to put pressure on people as those ages arrive. I think it is a mistake to think that way: The human body and mind have almost an infinite capacity for generation and regeneration. And yet, there is a sense – perhaps it’s ageist – that you have to have made whatever contribution you are going to make by a particular age or you’re not going to make it. In turn, people get more stressed and uneasy during those middle years, and for some it’s described as a crisis. 

NG: Based on science, I really disagree with the idea that there’s a drop in happiness or well-being from age 20 to 50. Most of the data that suggests that midlife is a low point in subjective well-being or happiness is based on cross-sectional data: studies comparing different people at different ages that infer when you’re 20 years old, you are going to develop into the kind of person who is not happy at age 50, even though the 20-year-olds and 50-year-olds studied were different people. There are longitudinal studies tracking individuals over time that clearly show that happiness, or subjective well-being or indicators of mental health, such as self-esteem, actually improve with age. There’s a methodological difference between those two approaches that reveal opposite results. My research shows there’s not a lot of change between 20 and 50, and that’s why we can’t say there’s a midlife crisis. If there was, we should not be seeing people getting happier and feeling better about themselves in their 20s, 30s, 40s and 50s with longitudinal studies.

JH: In the major panel studies that I know there is a “U” shape in life evaluations. There’s another way of getting this, and it’s called synthetic panels, whereby you take people at the same age, and if it’s a big enough sample, you’re not getting the same person who you got at 20, but you can match them on all the other characteristics. There’s so many thousands that you know the idiosyncrasies, so you’re essentially forming a synthetic panel study. Both the synthetic panel study and the pure panel studies show the “U” shape. 

NG: Some people have reanalyzed those longitudinal data sets and have found different results depending on how they’re analyzing the data – I don’t think it’s as clean as arguing it’s a universal phenomenon.

JH:  It’s not universal, but it’s a characteristic of human life. The patterns are clear. Analysis of happiness over the life course is an expanding and important field. 

NG: That’s one place I really agree with you – the more important question is, what are the determinants of subjective well-being or happiness? There is a lot of exciting research. 

JH: We identified three. First, do you regard your immediate superior at work as more a partner than a boss? People who are in supportive workplaces have life satisfaction that is significantly higher than those who don’t, and especially so during the midlife period. People with this should cherish it and if you don’t [have it], either change jobs or, more importantly, help change what goes on within that workplace. The second is personal relationships: What are people’s living arrangements? The dip in happiness is less for those people who have supportive family connections. The third is the extent to which people feel a part of their community. All three are of vital importance, and they are all places whereby adjusting your own behaviour can make a difference.

NG: I would add evidence shows that happiness, or life evaluations, are related to physical health. And we know that in middle age we can do a lot to take care of our health and wellness. 

JH: Absolutely. The important point is that there are ways you can make changes to your life at home, on the job and in the community that will make you likely to be happier at all ages, and indeed to be less likely to have a low point, or crisis, in the middle years.