If there were ever a time for existential questioning, midlife is it. You’re old enough to confront the fact that there are roads you’ll never take but young enough to still have miles to go, both professionally and personally.
While most of us wouldn’t label this a full-on crisis, it’s normal to grapple with midlife dissatisfaction. For example, Brian’s fourth decade was by far his most successful. He made a lot of money, enjoyed recognition and praise for his work, and had a family that he cherished.
There was nothing wrong, and yet he wasn’t happy. It wasn’t absolute misery but rather a persistent sense of discontent.
Despite all the things he had to be grateful for, he was dissatisfied and couldn’t understand why.
The Malaise of Middle Age
As is often the case, what Brian experienced was not unique. In the early 2000s, researchers found an unexpected pattern that has been consistent in countries and cultures around the world: a U-shaped happiness curve.
In The Happiness Curve, author Jonathan Rauch details how life satisfaction declines from our early 20s until we hit our 50s. During our 40s, things basically bottom out, even while we’re hitting highs in all the areas we would expect to bring us satisfaction. (According to new research from Dartmouth economics professor David Blanchflower, who has been investigating the correlation between life satisfaction and age since the 1990s, the exact age is 47.2 worldwide.)
If this sounds like you, you’re likely looking for the reason why you’re not happy. But don’t be surprised if you come up empty-handed. Just like Seinfeld was a show about nothing, your 40s are a period of unhappiness about nothing.
Is This a Midlife Crisis?
Canadian psychoanalyst Elliott Jaques coined the term “midlife crisis” in 1965. He characterized it as psychological distress related to growing older and facing the reality of impending death.
The idea of the midlife crisis became mainstream thanks to a 1984 book by journalist Gail Sheehy called Passages: Predictable Crises of Adult Life. Like Jaques, Sheehy also thought the distress was caused by confronting our own mortality.
Research since the 1980s, however, rejects the notion that most people have a unique crisis at midlife. Sure, people go through traumatic experiences like divorce or job loss in their 40s and 50s, just like they do during their 30s, 20s, or 60s.
The crisis rarely comes. Instead, you just feel vaguely unhappy.
One thing that adds to the discontent that forty-somethings feel is the idea that there’s nothing but the misery of aging ahead. Ironically, the slump not only ends around age 50, but life satisfaction keeps going up from there.
And it really keeps going. A 2011 study led by the Stanford University psychologist Laura Carstensen concluded: “Contrary to the popular view that youth is the best time in life, the present findings suggest that the peak of emotional life may not occur until well into the seventh decade.”
So the first way to make it through the midlife slump is to simply know that it gets better and carry on. In other words, don’t pull a Lester Burnham from American Beauty. Quitting your job on a whim or blowing your retirement savings on a muscle car is not a good look.
The Tyranny of Status and Success
Being afflicted by this vague discontent at what may well be the high point of your career so far is more than just ironic. The very achievements and status that you thought would make your life golden actually contribute to the malaise.
Researchers call this the “hedonic treadmill.” Youthful ambition and its inherent optimism tend to make actual success less satisfying in the long run. As we age and realize our dreams, the yearning to be even more successful and enjoy a higher status effectively moves the goalposts. So, regardless of objective accomplishments, victory isn’t nearly as sweet as we’d once imagined.
From there, we start to feel guilty. How dare we be unhappy when we have so much to be grateful for? This leads to even more dissatisfaction, and the midlife doldrums start to expand.
If this is you, just take a step back and a deep breath. Once you understand that this is a common thing that happens to a lot of people — not just you — it takes the pressure off.
So, don’t call it a crisis. Think of midlife weirdness as an opportunity.
In Pursuit of Meaning and Purpose
Purpose is important. In many ways, it’s the thing that keeps us going.
Purpose is one of four core dimensions of well-being, along with awareness, connection, and insight. Having a sense of purpose is key to attaining life satisfaction, a more rewarding state than fleeting moments of happiness.
There are more pragmatic benefits, too. Science shows leading a purpose-driven life can help improve memory and cognitive abilities and lowers the risk of serious health issues like heart problems and stroke. It’s also correlated to enjoying a higher income and net worth.
The good news is that purpose isn’t something that magically appears from biology or life circumstances. It’s a skill that science says can be cultivated through intentional mental training that can be learned, practiced, and applied in your daily life.
One effective framework to identify your core mission is the Japanese concept of ikigai. Roughly translated, ikigai is your reason for living — what makes you jump out of bed in the morning. It integrates all aspects of daily life to provide you with a sense of purpose.
That meaning-making, combined with a calm, healthy approach to life, has led to incredibly long lifespans in parts of Japan, such as in Ogimi, a village of 3,000 of the world’s longest-living people who routinely hit 100(+), disease- and disability-free.
To figure out your ikigai, you’ll create a simple Venn diagram that answers the following four questions:
- What do I love?
- What am I good at?
- What does the world need?
- What can you be paid for?
For example, in Brian’s case, each new entrepreneurial project he starts is at the overlap of those questions. And yet, he keeps seeking a better fit with each new venture.
Deeper meaning. A greater sense of purpose. A more perfect ikigai.
We all likely have a general mode of ikigai that fuels us while the specific applications continually evolve. Work that ends up being a series of interesting projects allows for that evolution in your life.
You might think this is a younger person’s game, but it’s not at all. If you need a reassuring stat, put this one from the Kauffman Index in your hip pocket: nearly a quarter of new entrepreneurs are 55+, and the average age of a successful startup founder is 45.
Not only are we not done yet, but we’re just getting started in pursuing more meaningful, purpose-driven pathways.
Your Story Begins Right Now
Our sense of self is a story that we tell ourselves.
Whether you consult with a neuroscientist, speak to a Zen Buddhist, or reflect upon the writings of philosopher David Hume, you’ll hear the same thing — the self is an illusion.
Our thoughts, memories, triumphs, worries, and regrets are strung together to form a narrative that seems like the permanent “who” we are. But in reality, there’s no tangible essence, even though it certainly feels like there is.
That’s not to say the self doesn’t exist; it’s just not what we perceive it to be. Neuroscience reveals that there is no center in the brain where the self is constructed. It’s more of a trick of the ego that causes us to experience life as a conscious, thinking person with a unique historical background.
Cognitive neuroscientist Bruce Hood puts it this way:
“Who we are is a story of our self — a constructed narrative that our brain creates.”
If you are a story, then how you choose to interpret that story is always within your control. Best of all, your story can be changed.
Fixed Versus Growth Mindset
When it comes to personal growth, your ability to evolve depends on whether you think your story is being written with your active participation or whether it’s already set in stone. If you think it’s the latter, it may be time to stop taking your “self” so seriously.
If you’re struggling with the idea that at our age, change is impossible, we recommend checking out Carol Dweck’s iconic book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. In our opinion, it should be required reading for anyone struggling to develop new skills and habits, as it mines the depths of growth vs. fixed mindsets.
People with a fixed mindset believe that they were born with certain attributes, talents, and intelligence… and that’s it. In their view, they’re stuck with the hand they were dealt. This leads to the avoidance of challenges that might lead to failure, a refusal to try to improve, and in extreme cases, cheating and illegal behavior to compensate.
The worst part about the fixed mindset is the constant anxiety and unhappiness. Failure at a task tends to be internalized as “I’m a failure” instead of “I’m not good at this yet,” which can be rectified by effort and practice.
People with a growth mindset are different. They love new challenges, learn from mistakes and failed attempts, and are constantly evolving and improving. They also tend to enjoy greater happiness and well-being.
The good news is, fixed mindset people can escape “the box” by recognizing that how they perceive life events makes all the difference. It’s simple but not always easy. And even people with a growth mindset often hold themselves back at times by slipping into a self-imposed plateau.
The trick is to believe that our Further motto — Keep Going — is of utmost importance. Because just knowing that you’d like to make a change isn’t the same as taking actual steps to move forward. You not only have to be open to learning new things but also be willing to do the work necessary to add new skills to your repertoire.
There’s no magic bullet for this part of the process, but just because you can’t remember where you left your phone or your keys doesn’t mean your middle-aged brain is too addled.
On the contrary, the childhood brain focuses on developing fluid intelligence, like the IQ you’re born with. That taps out in your early 20s. But crystallized intelligence, which includes things like building skills, knowledge, and expertise, can be cultivated and increased well into your 70s.
So, no excuses.
What’s Your Next Chapter? (Hint: It’s Not an Ending, Just New Beginnings)
When you accept that who you are is a constructed narrative your brain creates, and it’s malleable with the right mindset, then you can become a different type of protagonist in your personal narrative — one that experiences life purposefully and joyfully (or at least differently).
But we mostly don’t. Instead, we try to keep anything “bad” from happening to us so we can continue following the safe script we think we should adhere to. When our lives go off script, we see it as a travesty instead of an opportunity for a more interesting adventure.
Even though we’re a story, we work to ensure that our lives would make a terrible movie. And if you happen to think your life would make a great movie, that would be because you faced some sort of adversity or challenge that allowed for personal transformation, right?
That’s what great stories are all about. And yet, we dodge adversity whenever we can.
We can change the arc of our story at any time, but we often need life to intervene in an unexpected way. We need a near-death experience, the loss of a job, or some other event outside of our control — like a pandemic, perhaps — that jolts us out of our everyday routine and compels us to take action toward a future that’s more authentically ours.
In fiction, this is called the “inciting incident.” Without one, you don’t have a compelling story:
The inciting incident is the narrative event that launches the main action. It typically occurs within the first act of the story and means something significant for the main character, most likely impacting their entire life.
But wait … we’re pretty well past our first act at this point, right? Not at all.
The past is simply the backstory of the character you’re playing, and you’re starring in a new story right now, in the present moment. The question is, how compelling will that story be?
In our lifetime already, we’ve been presented with major inciting incidents, from the Cold War to 9/11, a bunch of recessions (the early 1990s, early 2000s, 2008’s “Great Recession,” and what is arguably a pandemic-induced recession today), not one but two pandemics (first AIDS, now COVID-19), and a whole host of other brutal, game-changing events. There’s apparently more on the horizon, but then again, we are more latchkey than slacker.
Our generation has the independence, resilience, and grit to face whatever life throws at us with plenty of teen spirit — no matter how old we are.
So, instead of despairing over the chaos, you can treat this time as an opportunity to change. To look back on the recent past in particular as a wild sequence of events that ended up being the catalyst for the life you want to live.
Unlike a movie, your story doesn’t hinge on how things turn out. Your personal narrative, and the very meaning of life itself, is the experience of life. And that experience should be crafted on your terms, starting immediately.
What we call “success” is usually a story that follows a script written by someone else. Unless it’s the late, great John Hughes, don’t give anyone else that power.
And speaking of power, now that you have the mindset necessary to move mountains and scale new heights, it’s time to ensure you have the strength and stamina necessary to do what you want for as long as you can.