In the middle of our lives, generally the late 40s for most of us, we have a chance to look forward and backward at equal portions of our lives.
And many times when we take that look, we experience intense dissatisfaction.
In response some of us go on a shopping spree, pursue a once-in-a-lifetime vacation, or start to take unnecessary risks to experience a thrill. Sometimes these end in a crisis such as bankruptcy, divorce, or physical illness. More often they just leave you shaking your head as you clean up the pieces or pay the bills, only slightly happier than when you started.
Why does this happen? And, more importantly, how can you prevent it?
What is a midlife crisis?
According to the book Midlife: A Philosophical Perspective by Kieran Setiya, midlife is a time when we ponder the lives we could have lived, the choices we have made, and the happiness that seems to escape us.
We yearn for the roads we did not travel. We imagine that we could have been a ballerina, or a successful lawyer, if only …
And there is the problem with this way of thinking. We will always wonder about the paths that we did not walk down, but we end up comparing the mundane reality (as we see it) of our own lives, and comparing it to a vision of ourselves as the pinnacle of the career we did not choose.
In this comparison, our reality never has a chance, because it is up against a perfect alternative that overlooks the hard work it would have taken to get there.
It assumes nothing bad happened along that other path. And this is a major self-deception.
These things are “incommensurable” – you can’t compare the life decision you didn’t make with the one you did. If you pursued your passion instead of your career, would you have this amount of money? This spouse? These children? No to all of these.
You’d have lost the things you enjoy along with the things that bore you about this life.
How can you prevent a midlife crisis?
Regrets exist in every life. However, you can make it through midlife without a crisis.
First, note the work of two great classical artists and thinkers:
- Michelangelo painted almost nothing between the ages of 40 and 55
- Dante considered himself “lost in the dark woods” for years in his late 30s… only to emerge and write the Divine Comedy, his masterpiece
We must make peace with the idea that we can’t be spectacularly successful and productive at every phase of our lives. We have to make do with our lives just as they are. Disappointment is hard to avoid in real life. We must note that we would have faced disappointments on other paths as well.
But the work of David Blanchflower shows that this disappointment and periods with a lack of productivity are very normal. He described the “Happiness U” that showed that people are naturally at their unhappiest at this point in life … and the best is yet to come. We grow happier as we age.
John Stuart Mill noticed that the happiest people were those who were “aiming at” something else. Seeking happiness is not the way to do it – following your interests is.
Though we can never stop yearning for the roads we didn’t travel, because we can’t do it all, we are forced to make decisions at certain junctures. Making peace with those decisions, which involve trade-offs, is a natural part of aging.
Take the philosophical approach to your midlife crisis
Setiya proposes exploring the approaches of the great philosophers. Montaigne postulated that “to philosophize is to learn how to die,” providing the basis for Setiya’s approach.
Maybe you’re drawn to the epicurean approach. Lucretius recommended dying with fearlessness. “Isn’t death more peaceful than the deepest sleep?”
Schopenauer taught to trust the process, and not idealize achieving any specific goal in your life. Goals and desires are inherently damaging to one’s quality of life, because we suffer when we don’t hit our goals. Sadly, we also are dissatisfied soon after we actually hit our goals.
He said to stop desiring.
Setiya expands by suggesting that you learn to love the pursuit rather than the goal. Love to learn rather than to earn a degree. Love to write rather than to get published. Learn to enjoy solving a crossword instead of completing them.
If you change your attitude toward the process rather than the prize. In time you might find you enjoy it.
Struggling with the stress of your daily life? Unhappy with what you’ve achieved? Finding yourself in constant fights with your loved ones? You likely will benefit from talking to a licensed therapist like Sakina Issa.
Luckily, these conversations can happen discreetly and by appointment using the same tools you have grown comfortable using at work, like Zoom or GoToMeeting. Just click the button in the upper right hand corner.
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