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Is midlife crisis real?

Mohammed Abul Kalam, PhD
Is midlife crisis real?

There's good evidence to suggest a midlife crisis exists, though it's hard to define what the midlife is. And perhaps crises that occur during midlife might equally have occurred before or after.

Middle age is often seen as life’s pivot point. A hill has been climbed and the view over the other side is unsettling. As Victor Hugo said: “forty is the old age of youth” and “fifty the youth of old age”.

The idea adults in midlife face a dark night of the soul – or desperately escape from it, hair plugs flapping in a convertible’s breeze – is deeply rooted. Studies show the great majority of people believe in the reality of the so-called “midlife crisis” and almost half of adults over 50 claims to have had one. But is it actually real?

Middle age may be dislocating for some but there is little evidence it is usually a period of crisis and despondency. Psychologically speaking, things tend to get better. If there is a small dip in how people evaluate their lot – even if it is objectively no worse than before – this is understandable. Our attention shifts from time past to time left and that requires a process of adjustment.

Measuring time: Humans have created reliable instruments to measure time by using predictable repeating events that occur naturally, such as day turning to night or winter becoming spring. We think of these events in terms of days, weeks and years, and we use clocks and calendars to mark their passage. But we also appear to possess an internal timepiece, which regulates our circadian (day/night) rhythms and allows us to register the duration of particular events. We use this “pacemaker” to compare the length of each new event with representations stored in memory. Effectively, we build up a knowledge bank of what a minute, an hour or a day feels like.

What typically begins as our brain’s ability to register short durations - from minutes to seconds - is transformed into an understanding of the flow of time across the lifespan. But, unfortunately, our internal pacemaker doesn’t always keep time as accurately as our external gadgets. Individual perceptions of time are strongly influenced by our level of focus, physical state and mood. Just as “a watched pot never boils”, when we are concentrating on an event, time occasionally appears to pass more slowly than usual. This is also the case when we’re bored; time can seem to drag endlessly.

In other circumstances, time can appear to speed up. When our attention is divided, for instance, and we’re busy with several things at once, time seems to pass by much more swiftly. This may be because we pay less attention to the flow of time when we are multi-tasking. The emotional quality of an event also influences our perception of time. Negative emotional states, such as feeling sad or depressed, have the effect of making time feel as if it’s passing more slowly. Fear has a particularly powerful effect on time, slowing down our internal clock so that the fearful event is perceived as lasting longer. In contrast, fun and happy times seem to be over in the blink of an eye.

Just as time may slow or quicken depending on our current emotional state, our perception of time may also become distorted as we age. People over the age of 60 often report time becoming more variable. Key factors: Anomalies in time perception as we age may relate to a number of necessary cognitive processes, including how much attention we can devote to a particular task and how effectively we can divide our attention between several ongoing tasks at once. Our efficiency in these domains gradually dampens as we age and may influence the subjective perception of time.

Perhaps more importantly, our frame of reference for the duration of events also changes as we age. Memories we have stored throughout our lives allow us to create a personal timeline. There’s a suggestion that our perception of time may be in proportion to the length of our lifespan. Known as the “proportional theory”, this idea posits that as we age, our sense of “present” time begins to feel relatively short in comparison to our entire lifespan. Proportional theory makes intuitive sense if we consider how a year in the lifespan of someone who is 75 years old may feel much quicker, for instance, in comparison to a year in the life of a ten-year-old. But it cannot fully explain our experience of present time as we can move from hour to hour and day to day independently of the past.

Memory may hold the key to time perception, as the clarity of our memories is believed to mould our experience of time. We mentally reflect on our past and use historic events to achieve a sense of our self existing across time. As the most vividly remembered experiences tend to occur in our formative years, that is, between the ages of 15 and 25, this decade is associated with an increase in self-defining memories, known as the “reminiscence bump”. This memory cluster may help explain why time speeds up with age, as older people move further away from this critical period in their lives.

Accuracy of time perception is also disrupted in various clinical conditions. Developmental disorders, such as autism and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, for instance, are often associated with difficulties in accurately estimating time intervals. At the other end of the life spectrum, conditions such as Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s disease are also associated with inaccuracy in timing short intervals, as well as with difficulty in travelling back in subjective time to remember the past.

Can we slow down the ever-quickening pace of life? Perhaps. Improving cognitive abilities, especially attention and memory, can help us fine-tune our internal pacemakers. And mediation and mindfulness may help anchor our awareness in the here and now. Indeed, they may gradually help us to bring the fast river of time to a slow meander. When is midlife? Clearly there are many grounds for being unsatisfied with life during the middle years. But does that make the midlife crisis real, or just an intuitively appealing phantom? There is good reason to be skeptical. For one thing, it’s hard enough deciding when the midlife crisis should occur. Concepts of middle age are elastic and change as we get older. One study found younger adults believe middle age stretches from the early 30s to 50, whereas adults over 60 saw it as extending from the late 30s to the mid-50s. A midlife crisis could happen in our 30s, depending on how old we are when we’re assessing what ‘midlife’ is. In one US study one-third of people in their 70s defined themselves as middle-aged. This research accords with a finding middle-aged people tend to feel one decade younger than their birth certificate. However we define midlife, do crises concentrate in that period? One study suggests not. It indicates instead that self-reported crises simply become steadily more common as we age. Among study participants in their 20s, 44 per cent reported a crisis, compared to 49 per cent of those in their 30s, and 53 per cent of those in their 40s.

In another study, the older the participants, the older they reported their midlife crisis to have occurred. People aged over 60 recalled theirs at 53 while those in their 40s dated theirs to 38. Arguably there is no distinct midlife crisis, just crises that occur during midlife but might equally have occurred before or after.

What the theorists thought: The psychoanalyst Elliot Jaques, who coined the term “midlife crisis” in 1965, thought it reflected the dawning recognition of one’s mortality. “Death”, he wrote, “instead of being a general conception, or an event experienced in terms of the loss of someone else, becomes a personal matter”. The key achievement of middle age, according to Jaques, is to move beyond youthful idealism to what he called “contemplative pessimism” and “constructive resignation”. He argued midlife was when we reach maturity by overcoming our denial of death and human destructiveness.

Carl Jung presented a different view. He argued midlife was a time when previously suppressed aspects of the psyche might become integrated. Men could recover their unconscious feminine side or anima, previously submerged during their youth, and women come alive to their hidden opposite, the animus. Less profound explanations have also been offered for midlife dissatisfaction. It’s when children may be leaving the family home and when adults are generationally sandwiched, required to care for children and ageing parents. Chronic illnesses often make their first appearance and losses accelerate. Workplace demands may be peaking.

Midlife as a time of growth, not crisis: Crisis episodes may not be tightly tied to adverse life events. Research often fails to show clear connections between adversities and self-proclaimed crises. One study found reporting a midlife crisis was not associated with recently experiencing divorce, job loss or death of a loved one, and was primarily linked to having a history of depression.

The idea middle age is a time of psychological gloom is also belied by research evidence. The U-shaped life satisfaction curve notwithstanding, most change during midlife is positive.

Consider personality change, for example. One longitudinal study that followed thousands of Americans from age 41 to 50 found they became less neurotic and self-conscious with age. These personality changes were unrelated to the adults’ experience of life adversity: resilience, not crisis, was the norm. The challenge is to come out the end of middle age with life satisfaction restored, as most do. Victor Hugo says it well again: “when grace is joined with wrinkles, it is adorable”.

 The writer is Former Head, Department of Medical Sociology,

Institute of Epidemiology, Disease Control & Research (IEDCR)

Dhaka, Bangladesh

E-mail: med_sociology_iedcr@yahoo.com

IK

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Published by the Editor on behalf of Independent Publications Limited at Media Printers, 446/H, Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1215.
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Editor : M. Shamsur Rahman
Published by the Editor on behalf of Independent Publications Limited at Media Printers, 446/H, Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1215.
Editorial, News & Commercial Offices : Beximco Media Complex, 149-150 Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1208, Bangladesh. GPO Box No. 934, Dhaka-1000.

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