The Queen of My Self

Women get the short end of the stick when it comes to midlife crises. Men get new cars and younger wives and become more distinguished with age; we get depression, weight gain, and an overall sense of dread. While it’s long been suspected that the term “midlife crisis” is mostly used to justify bad behavior, a new paper set to be published in the forthcoming issue of the UK’s Economic Journal and recapped by the Guardian suggests that “human well-being” does, actually, hit a low point in our early 40s. So … it’s kind of inevitable.

The good news? The experts who conducted the research wrote, “Following the same men and women through the years of their evolving lives, we show that there is multicountry evidence for a U shape in the level of human well-being.” That means that, while satisfaction takes a dip beginning in early adulthood up to “its lowest point between the ages of 40 to 42,” it rises from there until the age of 70.

“This paper studies the lives of tens of thousands of randomly sampled individuals over some decades and for a number of nations,” wrote the authors. “We provide what appears to be the first longitudinal (fixed effects) multi-country evidence that there are scientific grounds to believe in a human nadir or midlife ‘crisis.’”

Theory and Criticism

The idea of a midlife crisis is attributed to Elliott Jaques, a psychoanalyst and management consultant. While studying the careers of Dante, Gaugin, and other artistic geniuses, Jaques discovered a common pattern of turmoil in their middle years. In 1965, he published “Death and the Midlife Crisis,” where he describes how men and women become aware, on a visceral level, of their mortality somewhere between the ages of 35 and 50. With death no longer far off but growing near, people begin to feel dissatisfied with their accomplishments and worry about their ability to complete their goals. Following the soap opera version of this script, middle-aged men, feeling unhappy and disillusioned, suddenly divorce their wives and buy sports car, while middle-aged women begin affairs with the pool boy.

However, since Jaques first proposed the theory, the midlife crisis has had its critics.

“Even the broadest definition of ‘midlife crisis’ predicts that middle-aged adults encounter more or age-specific psychological problems than those in other age groups, wrote University of Zurich psychologists in a 2009 paper, “The empirical evidence, however, does not support this hypothesis.”

Though many people do take stock of their lives in middle age, the Zurich psychologists argue this is an ongoing process people perform at all stages and ages. Also, there’s a lot of variability in how different people approach this life stage. In the end, they conclude a “lenient conceptualization of crisis” may still be “fruitful,” if only because it stimulates new research and motivates change. Others give more weight to the midlife crisis.

U Shape Curve

In defense of the midlife crisis, the current team of researchers decided to search for long-term evidence supporting the theory of human happiness forming a ‘U shape’ curve. To accomplish this, the team analyzed four different datasets from Australia, Britain, and Germany. These separate datasets had tracked tens of thousands of participants over time, measuring their happiness and wellbeing by way of questionnaires. For each wave of each survey, participants used a scale of 1 through 7 to answer the question, “How satisfied are you with your life overall?”

Assembling the data, the researchers calculated within-person changes in life satisfaction and plotted the findings. Their results revealed a U-shape in wellbeing. Noting their strict methodology, the researchers said the midlife dissatisfaction discovered stemmed only from changes in the quality of each individual’s life and not a comparison to others.

“We document powerful support for a U-shape in unadjusted longitudinal data without the need for regression equations,” wrote the authors.

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Donna Henes is the author of The Queen of My Self: Stepping into Sovereignty in Midlife. She offers counseling and upbeat, practical and ceremonial guidance for individual women and groups who want to enjoy the fruits of an enriching, influential, purposeful, passionate, and powerful maturity. Consult the MIDLIFE MIDWIFE™

The Queen welcomes questions concerning all issues of interest to women in their mature years. Send your inquiries to




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