Midlife: What Goes Down Must Come Up

I find that for men and women in their 40s, 50s and 60s who weather the physical and emotional changes inherent to this life stage, some things actually get better, not worse.
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When Obama turned 50 in August, warring political parties and world leaders paused to congratulate him. Thousands of fundraisers in his hometown of Chicago sung "Happy Birthday," and his two daughters left summer camp for Camp David for a more intimate celebration. But among the outpouring of well wishes were warnings too. Turning the big 5-0, he was told, meant that things would go downhill from there -- as if he didn't have bigger downturns to worry about!

Reaching midlife has traditionally been met with this sort of pessimism. We're cautioned, "enjoy life while you can" or "aging is brutal," a perspective Susan Jacoby shared in her latest book, "Never Say Die." She challenges our media's promises for 'midlife transformations,' saying they do little to "spare us all from the decrepitude" that aging inevitability brings.

A recent PEW Survey offers statistics to support this pessimism. Today's baby boomers, according to the report, are generally a "glum" group, with 80 percent saying they feel dissatisfied with the way their lives are going. Most depressing is the physical and financial decline they expect to endure in the years that lie ahead.

But listen more carefully or follow this age group a little longer past their so-called "midlife crisis" and you'll hear something else: A growing sentiment among men and women who feel good about themselves, their lives and even their futures -- yes, a sense of optimism.

As a psychologist, I am finding this to be true among the clients I work with and the people who attend my talks about aging. It is one of the reasons I no longer use the term midlife crisis, replacing it with "emerging maturity" to describe these critical years.

This is key: I find that for those men and women in their 40s, 50s and 60s, who weather the physical and emotional changes inherent to this life stage, some things actually get better, not worse. In place of complaints and fears, I hear sentiments like, "I'm more confident and solid now," or even, "I feel better than ever." Are they just making good out of bad? Is it the result of good psychotherapy, or are people just saying what they want to believe? Some recent research studies suggest that my findings go beyond my small sample.

One study by researchers Andrew Oswald in England and David Blanchflower in the USA, analyzed data collected from 80 different countries measuring levels of depression, anxiety, happiness and satisfaction among adults over a span of 35 years. They published their findings in the Journal of Social Sciences and Medicine, which showed that people across the globe follow a general psychological path in adult life that appears somewhat like a U-shaped curve.

According to this report, both men and women, with or without children, regardless of economic status, start heading downward in terms of fulfillment and happiness as they hit their forties -- hitting a low point around age 44-- but then rebound upward as they reach their mid fifties. Barring any serious physical disability, happiness levels -- at least statistically -- hit rock bottom for most people in their forties, but ultimately they find their way back up and the risk of depression goes down.

Other recent research on the psychology of midlife shows similar results. Art Kramer, Ph.D. who studies aging at the Beckman Institute, says that although we obviously slow down both physically and mentally, there is also evidence of new kinds of growth as we enter our 50s. He and others, including Neil Charness, Ph.D., a psychology researcher at Florida State University, point toward the increased capacity for what is called "crystallized intelligence" as we age. He makes a distinction between fluid and crystallized intelligence. The former is about raw processing speed; the agility with which you are able to solve new and unfamiliar problem. The latter comes from experience; hard and fast knowledge, garnered over years.

Crystallized intelligence, according to Charness, remains not only intact, but improves as the brain gets older. "If you look at measures of knowledge like information tasks, vocabulary tasks," he says, "then those abilities seem to rise at least into the 50s and hold maybe even to the 60s and 70s, and probably start to decline after that."

Another researcher, Laura Carstensen from the Stanford Center on Longevity, points toward other reasons to be optimistic about aging based on what she calls the socio-emotional selectivity theory. "There's a general set of goals that guide human behavior throughout life," she says, "and when time horizons are vast and nebulous, as they typically are in youth, people prioritize those goals in different ways than when time horizons are short."

The result? As we age and recognize the limited time ahead, we are more focused on gaining the kind of insights and knowledge that we need to prioritize goals. In other words, with age comes wisdom. And with wisdom, we may find that we make smarter life choices that are more likely to bring us satisfaction.

So, what do these studies mean to Obama and the millions of other baby boomers celebrating their 50th birthdays? Does this U-curve path mean they have already hit rock bottom and are on their way back up? My take on this is as follows:

The average person begins life with lofty expectations. During childhood, adolescence and right through early adulthood, most of us set the bar high, both professionally and personally. We have dreams of becoming doctors, lawyers, CEOs and even presidents. We expect to fall in love, create families and live happily ever after. At this life stage we rely on "fluid," rather than crystallized intelligence in order to reach these goals. We are busy optimizing our physical, economic and support systems to get educated, find jobs and mates. Our life goals, up until our 20s and 30s, are broad and not yet clearly prioritized.

During early adulthood we begin facing the fact that we may or may not meet our aspirations -- constrained not only by our own physical and emotional limitations, but by those imposed upon us -- e.g. economic, geographic, cultural, etc. As we hit our 40s, reality may set in even further. For some, the traditional midlife crisis hits -- experienced by some men when they fail to achieve financial or professional success -- and by some women as they face peri-menopause and the end of childbearing opportunities.

By age 44 -- the stage that Oswald described as when we hit rock bottom -- the confrontation with our past and the increasing limitations presented by our future can cause great turmoil. Decisions about the next stage of life loom large. "Can I live the next 40 to 50 years with the choices I've made up until now?" Some panic. Others feel stuck. And some move through it, onward and forward, altering expectations, creating clearer priorities.

This is key, for it is at this stage that important emotional and cognitive shifts seem to take place for many people allowing for the upturn at midlife to occur. By the time we reach our 50s, many of us have begun to let go of unrealistic goals and accept who we are. We begin to use our accumulated knowledge, prioritize our life goals and make wiser choices as we move forward. We start to feel more satisfied with what we have achieved, enjoy our accomplishments and feel less compelled to push for more. It's not about giving up or giving in, but rather settling in for the ride.

As for President Obama? Most of us view him as having set the highest of bars, surpassing goals few of us will ever achieve. And as he enters his 50s, hopefully he can pause long enough to look back with pride and look forward with greater optimism as well. Maybe, if his life follows the U-shape curve, he'll even begin to enjoy the ride.

Has your life followed this emotional path -- going down, but coming back up -- as you pass through your 50s, 60s and beyond?

Vivian Diller, Ph.D. is a psychologist in private practice in New York City. She has written articles on beauty, aging, media, models and dancers. She serves as a consultant to companies promoting health, beauty and cosmetic products. "Face It: What Women Really Feel As Their Looks Change" (2010), written with Jill Muir-Sukenick, Ph.D. and edited by Michele Willens, is a psychological guide to help women deal with the emotions brought on by their changing appearances.

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