Health & Fitness | August 30, 2017 5:00 am

Is the Midlife Crisis a Real Thing?

Psychologists and economists cannot agree on whether such a crisis exists.

Two economists presented a working paper this month that offers statistical proof for the existence of the midlife crisis. According to the paper, in a survey of 1.3 million people across 51 countries, people report a measurable decline in happiness, starting in their 30s and continuing until around age 50, when they start to feel good about their lives again.

Andrew Oswald, an economist at the University of Warwick and co-author of the study, told Bloomberg that there is a definitely a “midlife low.”

However, psychologists disagree. They say the midlife crisis doesn’t exist.

“I’ve been doing research for pretty much my whole career on adult development, and I’ve never found age linked definitively to anything psychological about a person,” said Susan Krauss Whitborne, a professor of psychology and brain science at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. She told Bloomberg that people do go through periods of self-evaluation, but they are not tied to age.

“If someone close to you dies and you start to think about how life is limited, is that a mid-life crisis? Or is it just a healthy reevaluation of your priorities?” she asked.

Whitborne is one of several psychologists who holds this view, but the debate isn’t necessarily academic. Social well-being is a growing consideration for governmental and economic policy, writes Bloomberg. Happiness tends to go along hand-in-hand with health and productivity, both of which are good for the economy.

The United Nations and Bhutan both study happiness. Britain started conducting national mood surveys in 2011, hoping the country’s general feeling of well-being may guide policy decisions. The U.S. government doesn’t do this, but Bloomberg points out that University of Chicago’s National Opinion Research Center (NORC) has been conducting its General Social Survey, which asks about happiness, since 1972.

Oswald and his co-author David Blanchflower, an economics professor at Dartmouth College, don’t have recommendations for what governments and businesses should do with their findings, but they suggest a relevance to issues like suicide and public health policies on opiate addiction.

The idea of a midlife crisis was created by Canadian psychologist Elliott Jaques in the early 1960s. He was studying 310 famous artists and noticed that their creative output waned when they entered their mid-thirties. a pattern he also saw in his own clients. His 1965 paper on the subject, “Death and the Midlife Crisis,” said that only men have midlife crises because women go through menopause. This paper introduced the term “midlife crisis” to pop culture, and fostered the stereotype of middle-aged men buying sports cars and getting hair plugs. 

Oswald and Blanchflower point out that their research shows a marked decrease in people’s happiness when they hit middle age, even when accounting for marriage, employment status, and other factors. But does this truly mean the midlife crisis exits? Or does it, as Bloomberg suggests, just prove the millennial idea that “adulting” is hard?