A recently published paper based on data from the National Bureau of Economic Research in Massachusetts has documented a ‘crisis of midlife’ impacting those in more affluent countries.
The paper, which makes for rather gloomy reading, studied levels of happiness and mental health in midlife among those living in wealthy nations, and found that levels of stress peak around the age of 45.
Academics evaluated middle-aged people living close to their peak career earnings, who were not suffering from serious illness, and in some of the safest and wealthiest countries in the world. According to the findings of the working paper, cases of midlife crisis are primarily found in wealthy, developed countries, with one’s forties and early fifties associated with a decline in basic measures of life satisfaction, dependence on alcohol, problems with sleep, depression, and suicidal thoughts.
As the authors state, the paradox is that feelings of despondency coincide with a time in most people’s lives when they are at the peak of their earning power, in good health, and are residing in the safest countries in the world.
Documenting their findings, authors called this both “paradoxical and troubling”. They wrote: “Yet middle-aged citizens in our data sets are close to their peak earnings, have typically experienced little or no illness, reside in some of the safest countries in the world, and live in the most prosperous era in human history.
“This is paradoxical and troubling. The finding is consistent, however, with the prediction – one little-known to economists – of Elliott Jaques (1965)”.
Elliot Jacques coined the term “midlife crisis” in 1965. In his paper published that year, Jaques, then aged 48 and a relatively unknown Canadian psychoanalyst and organisational consultant, said it was the period when people shifted from youthful idealism towards maturity and acceptance of death as an inevitability. He argued that from the age of 35, we have to confront head-on our limitations, our restricted possibilities, and our own mortality.
Jacques said that he had identified the phenomenon by studying the lives of great artists, and in his paper, ‘Death and the Midlife Crisis’, he detailed how symptoms could present themselves in ordinary people through “hypochondriacal concern over health and appearance,” religious awakenings, a sudden inability to enjoy life, promiscuity, and “compulsive attempts” to try and remain young.
Researchers looked at life satisfaction measures in approximately 500,000 people and data on midlife suicide rates, sleeping problems, alcohol dependence, concentration problems, intense job strain, disabling headaches, extreme depression and memory loss.
They found hill-shaped patterns — reaching a peak in middle age — over the course of ageing in each of the social science metrics tested.
The paper found that stress was found to increase for those in their 40s, going through to their 50s, with the ‘maximum level of work stress’ reached at 45, which was the age people are most likely to feel overwhelmed in the workplace according to the academics.
People in industrialised societies usually earned more money at the midpoint of their lives than ever before, reaching peak earning power in their late forties for those with a lower level of education, while higher educated employees earned the most in their early fifties, according to the data.
The paper offered no explanation for the emotional decline in individuals aged in their late forties and fifties, but a common feeling of underachievement was a likely contributor, the paper said. There was no evidence, meanwhile, to suggest that jealousy of others or having children who were dependent were factors which contributed to the sense of unfulfillment.
Yet, there was one positive in the research, which was that once the period of midlife passed, distress lessened later in life, as wisdom and personal growth increased.
“There is some published evidence for a midlife psychological low in data on chimpanzees and orang-utans,” the authors said.
“So sheer ageing biology in primates may play some kind of role.That would take the ultimate explanation out of the social sciences and into the natural sciences. Much is still to be understood”.
Previous research spanning 132 countries for the American National Bureau for Economic Research concluded that the peak of unhappiness hits at 47.2 years of age in the developed world, and at 48.2 for those living in developing nations.