The concept of the midlife crisis was coined by the psychoanalyst Elliott Jaques in 1965, when he observed that many great artists experience a drop in creativity around the age of 35. What started as an obscure psychological theory, with time turned into a pop-culture phenomenon: associated with men chasing significantly younger women and buying shiny red convertibles.
However, there is a growing body of data showing that midlife crisis isn’t merely a spectacle of vanity, beloved by pop-psychology magazines and self-help books. We should treat midlife crisis seriously and treat it as a public health issue – of equal importance to declining mental health among adolescents and to rising number, due to ageing, of vulnerable older people.
In scientific literature, midlife crisis is most commonly discussed in the context of the U-shaped wellbeing or life satisfaction curve, also known as the “happiness curve”. The happiness curve became well-known when economists Andrew Oswald and David Blanchflower, studied how happiness and wellbeing changes with age in over 70 countries, including the United Kingdom.
The researchers found that wellbeing started to drop after late adolescence (early 20s) until it reached their the lowest point in midlife (age 46-55), after which it increased again. However, this wellbeing drop in midlife is rarely discussed in the context of diagnosable common mental disorders, such as depression and anxiety. Even though, every fifth person experiences such a problem in midlife and this proportion rises over time.
With hardly any research, reasons for the mental health midlife crisis remain unknown. A German study asked people how satisfied they were with different aspects of their life and found that the quality of leisure time as well as time with friends and family declined in midlife. Likewise, job-related stress also appeared to be particularly high in midlife – when we tend to experience our career peak, which may disturb work-life balance. The latter does not come as surprise, as the average age of Members of Parliament in the UK as well as CEOs of the top 500 corporations worldwide is around 50.
Without a doubt, we need to gain a better understanding of why people experience lower wellbeing, and potentially worse mental health, in midlife. This will help to take further steps to support men and women during this tough period of life.