You can reach a point in life where you think, “I am never going to achieve what I thought I would.”
Yeah, dark, but far from uncommon.
You’re not where you expected to be. There’s a sense of needing to make up for lost time — but it seems there’s less time than ever. Life has gone from feeling like an epic unfurling adventure to a sterile bureaucratic treadmill. Endless deadening responsibilities, but there’s no longer a narrative guiding it all toward victory and fulfillment. The numbing predictability gives birth to a corrosive sense of boredom.
You want to send it back to the kitchen: Please tell the chef this is not the life I ordered.
Or maybe you did get what you wanted – but it’s just not all you thought it would be. And so you ask yourself the question:
“Is this all there is?”
(For the record, I don’t recommend putting that phrase on an inspirational fridge magnet.)
Are these feelings a midlife crisis? Well, when you feel the need to ask that question, it kinda answers itself. It’s like a spiritual awakening — but in reverse.
Maybe you’re not even in midlife. Doesn’t matter. The feelings are the same. It seems like it’s too late to turn the ship around. The accumulated decisions and compromises have locked you in. Your life seems like something that happened to you. “How did I get here?” You feel trapped.
YEEEEEEEESH, that’s depressing.
Okay, some of you may be thinking: “Eric, are you feeling okay? Good God, I’m not having a crisis but your description might give me one.”
Sorry for the “Scared Straight” presentation. (And I’m doing just fine, thanks.) But we have an issue here that everybody knows about but nobody gives you an answer to. Plenty of discussion about youth. Many references to the “Golden Years.” But then there’s that BIG area in the middle where many of us are. Not much guidance. Figure it out. Best of luck.
Adulting is hard. We all get tired and start to question life. We all wonder if we’re really doing it right. And if we’re not careful, it can reach crisis proportions where you find yourself motorcycle shopping. Maybe you’re in the midst of it, maybe you’re on your way out of it, or maybe you can see it on the horizon, but we could all use help doing some existential troubleshooting in the muddy middle of life.
Okay, adults. Time to start adulting. Let’s get to it…
The midlife crisis has been around forever, right? Wrong. The concept originated in a 1965 paper by Elliott Jaques titled, “Death and the Mid-Life Crisis.” But clearly a lot of people related to it because by 1980 the idea had really caught on. (Heck, somebody even created a board game about it.)
But here’s where things get weird. By the year 2000, when the concept of the midlife crisis turned 35, well, it was having a midlife crisis of its own. Researchers took a hard look at the data and couldn’t find it. It seemed like a myth or at least something that wasn’t very common.
That’s a relief. Just because you turn 35 or 40 or 50 doesn’t mean your life is totally going to fall apart. Whew. But here’s where I am called upon to use one of the most foreboding words in the dictionary:
The data does show the middle is the low point for happiness in life. Control for whatever you want, torture the data however you like, the results are the same. Happiness has a “U-shaped curve” across the lifespan. It peaks around 20, plummets in the 40’s, and you see a happiness peak again at around 70.
Adjusting for income, marital status, and employment, Blanchflower and Oswald found that the level of reported happiness by age had the shape of a gently curving U, starting high in young adulthood and ending higher in old age, with an average nadir at forty-six. The pattern showed up in seventy-two countries around the world. It was similar in men and women and regression analysis ruled out an explanation in terms of the stress of parenthood.
What did they attribute the happiness drop to? The scary stuff I mentioned at the beginning of the post. Unrealized goals. Questioning your choices. Life changing but your identity not keeping up.
So few people experience a true “crisis” — but the struggle for happiness in midlife is real. And it’s not just common; it’s nearly ubiquitous. Ugh.
(To learn more about how you can lead a successful life, check out my bestselling book here.)
Fear not. There are ways we can make the U-shaped curve a little less curvy. First, we’ll look at achieving happiness. A recommendation from the science? Stop trying.
I’m kidding. Well, kind of…
Want smoother sailing through the choppy waters of adulthood? Stop chasing happiness and pursue meaning. Focus on something greater than yourself. Preferably something involving other people. Plenty of research shows this is what leads to the best lives.
As Jackie Robinson said, “A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives.” That may sound hokey to some. I am of that ilk. But, looking at the research, it seems I should be less ilky.
Think happiness leads to a long, healthy, stress-free life as you age? It doesn’t have nearly the effect that meaning does. Purpose in life is tied to a 22% reduction in strokes. It makes you 2.4 times less likely to get dementia. Meaning produces a reduction in all-cause mortality and a boost in longevity.
When researchers looked at stress-response and inflammatory markers, happiness and meaning has markedly different results on your biology. But why does meaning beat happiness? Because happiness is all about you. And that means staying happy is all on you. It can be a lot of work to, on your own, to do all the things you need to do to keep yourself happy. And your biology knows this. It’s stressful. But when you’re part of a community, your body knows others are looking out for you and doesn’t get paranoid that the good times will end. You’re not alone in the fight, so your body doesn’t have to stay vigilant. Fight-or-flight responses die down and that extends your warranty.
I know, some people are thinking: “That’s great, Eric. But I still wanna be happy.”
I get it. Problem is if you try to be happy you won’t be. Trying to be happy makes you unhappy. (Yeah, you read that right.) Brett Ford, of the University of California, Berkeley, figured out the issue. Most of our happiness comes from relationships — but we live in an individualistic culture. So if you try to be happy, you’re probably going to go about it all wrong. Too much striving for individual happiness and independence takes us further away from the others, and deeper into the U-shape of doom.
And the data proves this out. Guess who the loneliest people are? Nope, not the elderly. The most lonely people are 40 to 65 years old. Yup, middle age.
So if you’re starting to question “Is this all there is?” or want to head that off before it happens, focus on meaning, not happiness. Look to others, not yourself. John Stuart Mill said it best:
Those only are happy… who have their minds fixed on some object other than their own happiness; on the happiness of others, on the improvement of mankind, even on some art or pursuit, followed not as a means, but as itself an ideal end. Aiming thus at something else, they find happiness by the way… Ask yourself whether you are happy, and you cease to be so. The only chance is to treat, not happiness, but some end external to it, as the purpose of life.
(To learn the 5 secrets neuroscience says will make you emotionally intelligent, click here.)
Now some will say they do plenty for others, like their spouses or kids, and this still doesn’t help. That can be true. But the problem is they’re going all-in on the wrong kind of activities…
Paying bills, endless errands, putting out all manner of fires… Welcome to adulthood. It can feel like you spend 99% of your time just maintaining.
All your activities are “ameliorative.” Trying to prevent things from going wrong. Yes, responsibilities are essential but too much of this and you’re caught on the treadmill. Spending all your energy on “grief reduction” and nothing on “joy” makes for an extremely stable but unhappy life.
Simply put: have some more damn fun. Make time for things that bring joy in the moment. See friends. Heck, play that midlife crisis board game with them.
If you’re very Type A this can be hard but try being Type A-minus for a while. Step back from your big goals for a second and take pleasure in the little things. It’s cliché but true.
From Middle Age:
One issue here is that of giving up many of the great plans one had earlier in life, which one can now see are forms of naïveté or vanity that distort and deform one’s appreciation of the present moment… One chief art in life is, then, I think, the capacity to take pleasure in the small things of life, even as these things cross our path unexpectedly.
If you spend all your time making sure life doesn’t burn down and climbing the greased pole of success, you’re building the perfect playground you never play in.
Occasionally, step off the treadmill and do something that accomplishes nothing except making you and others feel good in the moment. Surprise your partner and take them out to dinner. Make a kickass pillow fort with your kids.
(To learn how to raise emotionally intelligent kids, click here.)
Some will say this is hard because their head is buzzing. Adulthood is like that. Worries about missed opportunities. FOMO. Feeling you have fewer options than when you were younger. Your brain goes full-on amateur archeologist with nostalgia’s evil twin: regrets about the road not taken.
How do we stop feeling “trapped”?
When you’re younger, the world seems like your oyster. Options abound. The possibilities are limitless. You can head in any direction. Then you reach adulthood and you feel clamped to a monorail track.
We love having options. We hate trade-offs because they reduce options — and that means the possibility of missing out.
In a 2001 survey of consumers deciding which car to buy, with different pros and cons, “researchers concluded that being forced to confront trade-offs in making decisions makes people unhappy and indecisive.” This finding is robust: it shows up in study after study. Choosing between incommensurable values elicits, conditionally and prospectively, the perception of unsatisfied desire… What connects nostalgia with missing out is not that there was a time when we could have everything, but that there was a time before we had to commit ourselves and thus confront our losses.
This is totally normal — and utterly insane. We always want options and we do it without making any concessions to common sense. Think about it: there are times when you know you made the best choice. You have the best thing… and yet we still wish for options, even though we would never pick them.
So why do we feel this way? It’s not necessarily because we actually want something else. We just don’t want to feel trapped.
And it’s all so terribly ironic. You know why? Because research conclusively shows we’re happier when we close off options. When we decide and commit to something. Then your brain can rest. Even if it was the wrong decision your brain is pretty clever about rationalizing it all. But keep mulling options and you’re stuck in a recursive loop of recursive loop of recursive loop of did I pick the best thing?
More importantly: deliberately missing out can be wonderful. There is value in making a choice. To saying you don’t want more options. It conveys, “This matters to me.” You don’t switch citizenships, religions, or political parties at the drop of a hat. I choose you, Pikachu. And that feels good.
Best example? For years, Harvard happiness researcher Dan Gilbert has been recommending that people close off options and commit to things because he knows how good it makes them feel. And a while back a friend of his agreed with him, saying this probably explained part of why married people are happier. This made Dan pause. He’d been living with his girlfriend for over a decade…
That night, Dan went home and proposed.
He’s happier now.
(To learn how to stop being lazy and get more done, click here.)
But we still face the adulthood dilemma, “Is this all there is?” You’re not going to achieve it all. This is where I’m supposed to say you can…
But you probably can’t. (Sorry, you very much picked the wrong blog for magical thinking.) The real problem isn’t not being able to achieve it all. It’s that line of thinking that’s the real issue…
In Anna Karenina, Tolstoy wrote:
…the eternal error men make by imagining that happiness consists in the gratification of their wishes.
What the heck does that mean? How else do you achieve happiness? Was Tolstoy clinically depressed?
Actually, he was right on the money. Goals are great — and essential — but if you chase goals just for the end result, man, are you screwed. Fail to achieve them and you’re sad. Achieve them and… you need another. And then another. (Insert your own clever addiction metaphor here, please.)
That’s the trap. The treadmill. Every time you achieve a goal, you’re back to square one, my dear Sisyphus. Do that enough times and you’re asking, “Is this all there is?” Does Tolstoy make more sense now?
So what do we do? More things that we enjoy for their own sake. Things where you enjoy the process. Things where we find fulfillment not at completion but in the moment itself. Some people garden because they want a pretty garden. Other people garden because they like gardening. Do the latter and you get both.
“But what about activities where I don’t enjoy the process?”
So glad you asked. It all depends on how you define the process. Cleaning a hospital is neither fun nor prestigious. But janitors who saw themselves not as “cleaners” but as part of a team that “helps sick people get better” felt their jobs were more meaningful and enjoyed them more.
You do this now. Even with the things you love, you don’t enjoy every activity they require. But when you give the process the right label, it’s less difficult and more fulfilling. Changing poopy diapers is not fulfilling or meaningful. But “parenting” often is. It’s how you define it.
And parenting is never done. But it’s not Sisyphean. It can be the most rewarding thing in the world. It’s the opposite of “Is this all there is?”
(To learn the 4 harsh truths that will make you a better person, click here.)
Okay, let’s round up all this discussion of adulting — and learn why the midlife crisis can be a good thing…
This is how to be better at adulting and dodge the midlife crisis:
I’m not going to lie to you: the above tips are not gonna solve every adulting issue but they can help. (Look, if you don’t have a gun, bringing a knife to a gunfight is a pretty good idea.)
It will get better with time. Eventually you’ll be climbing the other side of the U-shaped curve. But don’t just wait it out. Adulthood struggles have value. We need a little stress and challenge. It makes you more resilient. Believe it or not, having no problems is almost as bad as having lots of problems.
From Life Reimagined:
The happiest, most resilient, and most mentally healthy people had suffered two to three stressful events in their lives. Silver—whose work fits into a body of research variously called “hardiness,” “steeling,” “stress inoculation,” or “toughening”—found that no stress was almost as damaging as multiple traumas… “I think it suggests that a few events teach people how to cope and people learn from these experiences,” Silver says. “They learn their own strengths and weaknesses, and they come out stronger for the next event.”
So midlife struggles can have meaning too. They make you stronger. Your later years will not be as happy without them.
Yes, at times you may feel like you’re on the treadmill. You may wonder “Is this all there is?” But keep going. Remember how what you are doing is meaningful.
Famed writer Albert Camus said, “One must imagine Sisyphus happy.” And if the repeated tasks of adulthood have meaning for you, they’re not Sisyphean.
Acts of love are the most fulfilling, most meaningful things in the world.
And love is not a project you ever complete.
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