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Why we shouldn’t call midlife blues a ‘crisis’

As he interviewed subjects for a book on age and happiness, author Jonathan Rauch noticed a theme: people in their middle age felt dissatisfied with life, and they were ashamed of it. Indeed, recent studies have found happiness and contentment vary across the duration of our lives. Rauch explains why we should embrace the “rocky emotional reboot” of the midlife slump.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Researchers have found that satisfaction with life drops in our late 30s and bottoms out in our 40s, rising steadily, before reaching a peak in our 70s. You can call it the grandkid effect maybe?

    Well, despite these disparities, tonight, in Jonathan Rauch's humble opinion, there is no such thing as a midlife crisis.

  • Jonathan Rauch:

    Writing a book on age and happiness, I kept feeling a jolt, like deja vu.

    I would be interviewing middle-aged men and women, but they had a secret. They expressed embarrassment about how they felt, often shame. But they kept it to themselves.

    I know this territory. We gay Americans call it the closet. I lived in one for 25 years. It was a lonely, sad, painful place.

    Now here I am, hearing the same music, but with different words. This time, the people I hear it from are not hiding their sexuality. They are hiding their midlife slump.

    Recent research by economists, psychologists, and even in brain scans shows that age is not a neutral emotional backdrop. Feeling satisfied and grateful is easiest in the early and late decades of life, and harder in the middle.

    Midlife dissatisfaction seems to be a natural and normal transition, as our values change and our brains develop. It appears we have evolved to chase success and status in youth.

    In late adulthood, we shift our priorities toward community and connection. In between comes a sometimes rocky emotional reboot.

    Something pretty fundamental must be going on, because a similar pattern has been found in chimps and orangutans. Yet we call it a crisis, which usually it isn't.

    For men, we mock it with stereotypes of sports cars and bimbos. For women, we trivialize it as horror about wrinkles. We medicalize it as depression, when it's really dissatisfaction. We dismiss it as a First World problem.

    No one wants to be a punchline, a cliche, a basket case. So people hide their feelings and push through without support. And isolation only makes matters worse.

    If you're in a midlife slump, don't let yourself be isolated or ashamed. You're normal. If you know someone in a midlife slump, treat them as normal. Don't panic. Don't mock. Accept and support.

    Homosexuality is not wrong or harmful, but closeting it is. Midlife malaise isn't wrong or harmful, but closeting it is.

    Each of us right now can crack the closet door open a bit more for ourselves and someone we care about. Start by talking about midlife transition, not midlife crisis. It can do a world of healing.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Jonathan Rauch.

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