In London in 1957, at a meeting of the British Psychoanalytical Society, a man named Elliott Jaques first diagnosed what he called the “midlife crisis.” The 40-year-old Canadian was reading aloud from a paper he’d written. He theorized that people in their mid-30s typically experience a depressive period lasting several years. Jaques, a physician and psychoanalyst, had discovered this by studying the lives of great artists, and this depressive state, he claimed, takes an extreme form in them. Although ordinary people are not immune from a midlife depressive period, their symptoms were less severe and could include religious awakenings, promiscuity, a sudden inability to enjoy life, “hypochondriacal concern over health and appearance,” and “compulsive attempts” to remain young, reports The Atlantic. All of these feelings arrive, Jaques believed, when people realize that death is not just something that happens to other people, but is something that will happen to them as well.
Jaques did not pretend he was the first person to detect a change at this point in someone’s life. But he offered a modern, clinical explanation, and gave the experience its now popularly-accepted name Later, however, this idea was expanded from Jaques’ diagnosis to include practically any inner strife afflicting people in mature adulthood.
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