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Our So-Called "Midlife" -- Why Happiness and Depression Both Appear to Increase

During the several decades between young adulthood and old age you grapple with the challenge to "evolve" into a fully adult human. It is then You are then faced with core questions like "What am I living for?"
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A woman in her late 30s was telling me about her work-life conflicts. She has a busy career, three children, and a husband who travels a great deal for his own job. She suddenly paused, recalling a recent, terrifying dream: She's on one of those moving sidewalks, and can't get off. Passing by on either side are scenes of herself, but living different lives with different people. Suddenly she recognizes the Grim Reaper standing at the end of the sidewalk, arms outstretched, awaiting her.

She wakes up, screaming.

You might think her dream sounds more typical of someone older, in the throes of "midlife;" not in her 30s. In fact, I think her conflicts reveal the need to rethink what we've been calling "midlife" and how to make sense of it. That is, cultural, social and economic shifts, along with how people live and work today require tossing out old notions of "midlife" and the "midlife crisis." Today, people are living longer, healthier, productive lives, and in an unpredictable, insecure world. What used to be a narrower "middle" period of adulthood prior to old age has greatly expanded.

So we need to recognize that a broad period of true adulthood, per se, starts somewhere in the 30s. From that period onward men and women face a range of adult challenges of living and working in today's world. This new, longer adulthood extends for several decades in people's minds. For example, recent surveys find that about 80% think "old age" begins at around 85. Therefore the term "midlife" is no longer accurate.

No surprise, then, that 30-somethings are reporting symptoms previously associated with a "midlife crisis" - marriage boredom, careers flatlining, work-life juggling, trying to keep it all together, trying to maintain sanity...and, wondering what the point of it all is.

To better explain all this and how to reverse that assumed "death spiral," let's look at recent contradictory data about the so-called middle years from a broader perspective. Then I'll suggest some ways to deal with new challenges that enhance psychological health and wellbeing.

First, the recent research and surveys that present contradictory data about the so-called middle years: Some originates with a MacArthur Foundation study that claimed to find no such thing as a "midlife crisis" at all; that most people sail through it smoothly. But try telling that to the many men and women who struggle with a "non-existent" crisis that can lead to despair and turmoil.

More recent are new surveys that find midlife to be a period of both increased potential for suicide and increased happiness. One American-British study of two million people indicates that midlife is a time of universal depression, especially through the decade of one's 40s. Moreover, that depression can be severe, leading to suicide. For example, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports a 20 percent rise in midlife suicide in recent years; a rise that exceeds all other age groups in the U.S.

Some have offered various explanations: The decrease of hormone replacement therapy among women; more divorces; the tenfold increase in the use of prescription painkillers. But they're groping in the dark. Such factors can lead to many outcomes, depending on how the person handles them; not necessarily suicide.

On the flip side, data also indicates that happiness actually increases after this "bottoming out" of depression. Again, speculations abound as to why: Some argue that people may feel happier after their 40s because they've learned to count their blessings, or learn to accept that they'll never achieve certain life goals.

I find these all of the above explanations unconvincing. I think they just underscore the need for a new understanding of adulthood, proper; a new framework through which people can learn to deal positively with that adult life challenges of today's world.

Redefining "Midlife"

In my view, much of the contradictory data about depression and happiness reflects a failure to understand the mixture of new challenges people face, once they're past the young adult years - pre-about 35. Younger adulthood is really an extension of adolescence in our culture. Until then, you're dealing with the often-long period of education and training, and getting established in the adult career world. You're shifting your emotional connection with your family towards becoming more of your own person. You're learning about intimate relationships, and (hopefully) why they fail. Overall, you're having to take more responsibility for your actions, decisions and direction in life. Some of these issues have become visible in the growing tendency of people in young adulthood to receive financial and other support from their parents, as the New York Times recently reported.

During the several decades between young adulthood and old age you grapple with the challenge to "evolve" into a fully adult human - emotionally, creatively, relationally, and spiritually. You have to face such core questions as "What am I living for?" "What's the purpose of my life?"

That period now kicks in somewhere during one's 30s. These adult challenges are the source of most adult emotional conflicts, because facing them can arouse tremendous fear, denial or escapism. After all, we're highly conditioned to define ourselves by what we have rather than who we are. We learn to turn away from looking down the road, where we see Death patiently awaiting us all, as that 30-something woman did in her nightmare. And the economic downturn that began in September 2008 has only added to the anxieties about what may lie ahead.

When you begin to deal with the fully adult challenges you open a Pandora's Box of new questions and conflicting desires. For example, you feel pulled towards integrating the different "parts" of your life. You want to answer that inner voice asking, "Why am I choosing to live the life I'm living?" That is, the work you're engaged in, your friendships and love relationships, your lifestyle, your commitments. Your inner voice begins to ask, "Are these what I truly want?"

Facing all that can be difficult, even painful, because we're so easily trapped within our past choices and/or materialistic lifestyles, and there we may not be able to see any viable alternatives. Then, we may just resign to "what is." It can lead to what one man said to his wife during a couples therapy session in my office, "Maintaining a certain life-style and juggling all the balls of busy lives and careers - that's just part of normal life, isn't it? Can't do anything about that. Let's just figure out how to smooth out the bumps."

A Perfect Storm

I think depression does rise among some people when the new conflicts and needs converge with a second psychological shift: Old emotional defenses, rationalizations and self-deceptions from your childhood and adolescence, as well as from your adult decisions, begin to erode and crumble under their own weight. They no longer work so well as you age.

One reason that happens is because we always know the truth inside, and truth always keeps trying to rise to the surface. We may have remained unconscious about old conflicts - and puzzle over repetitive patterns or underlying unhappiness - but the pull towards resolving them is a strong developmental need. It tends to blossom more fully as you become older. In fact, the current economic meltdown has intensified that pull, out of necessity. In that sense it may prove to be a blessing in disguise for many people; an aid to redirecting their life choices in more fulfilling ways.

Sadly, though, some do descend into that "death spiral" of despair and resignation. That can segue into depression, from mild to severe. Suicide attempts may occur, as the research found. An example of downward drift is a man who realized that he never really liked his career, felt underutilized and unfulfilled; and then was let go by his company. At the same time, he was going through a divorce. He asked me a tearful question in our first meeting that sounded like a Zen koan: "How do you start over when you can't start over?"

Some people are better able to move through this period with greater clarity and hopefulness. This may account for some of the other data about an upswing of happiness during one's 50s. In fact, research shows that older people show greater brainpower, increased judgment, perspective and wisdom when solving problems. In addition, those with a sense of humor tend to live longer. These qualities can enable one to feel gratitude and appreciation for what one has in life. That can enhance overall well-being and positive energy, as distinguished from day-to-day fluctuations in "happiness."

But I think there's also a darker reason for the reported rise of happiness among some: masked resignation and accommodation. Some people more or less give up trying to grow or change. They decide, consciously or unconsciously, to lope along in the life they've been living...and then define that as "happiness."

It's an illusion, though. Over time they tend to become "comfortably numb," emotionally and spiritually. And they become increasingly vulnerable to physical ailments, an upsurge of later-life depression, alcoholism or drug usage.

I've worked with many such "happy" people: A woman who feared what changes she might have to make in her life to feel more alive, more vital - until one day she discovered her husband had been conducting an affair for several years, and her world crumbled. Or the man who had become more withdrawn at home, burying himself in work, alcohol and Internet chat rooms - with the silent agreement of his wife. Meanwhile, he gained weight and developed high blood pressure. When he consulted me, he said that whenever he had tried to break free, he reverted back to his old patterns. So he had decided to just stop trying.

But more positively, I'm seeing a rising number of people who grapple with their "midlife" challenges right from the start. They do some self-examination and work towards creating clearer purpose and more integration within their lives. That can open up a sense of renewal and positive resiliency.

Seen in this light, I suggest thinking of so-called midlife as a positive transition zone into full adulthood. A period for creative solutions and better trade-offs regarding your current commitments - mortgages, tuitions, salaries, expenditures, work and relationships. And a time for restructuring your choices, values and goals; making them support an integrated, healthy and authentic life, through which you can continue to grow and develop in all realms of your life. That's positive aging.

How Can You Do That?

Deal With Your Problems - Today
No one enters the thick of adulthood unscathed by childhood. Have you ever met anyone who had perfect parents? But when your emotional conflicts impact your relationships and behavior, it's time to find a good psychotherapist. Do it now. Remember what's waiting for you down the road. If you feel depressed, don't be so quick to pop pills. Recent studies find that antidepressant medications work no better than placebos, except for people with incapacitating depression or major mood disorder. Most people's emotional state is a physiological-emotional byproduct of how you're "practicing" your whole life.

Design Your Own "Evolution"
A large-scale study of baby boomers by MetLife/Civic Ventures found that over half now want their work to contribute to the common good; to provide a greater sense of service. Does that resonate with you? Take an honest look at what you're really working and living for. With your partner, assess how your career - its rewards and tradeoffs - relates to the rest of your life, including where you find meaning, your longer-term goals, and how you're using your mental and emotional powers to contribute something to the world, beyond just own self-interest. What changes would create better alignment? That's especially relevant today, when financial rewards may not be as promising as in years past.

Rethink Your Intimate Relationship
If you and your partner have been together a long time take the radical step of confronting whether you want to continue your marriage or relationship. Is this the person you want to stay with the rest of your life? Face the possibility that the relationship you entered years ago and within which you raised children worked for that earlier purpose, but may no longer do so, today. If so, how could you reconstitute it? Do you want to?

Maybe a time will come when people choose a marriage partner on the basis of raising healthy children in a stable environment, and then later seek a different partner with whom one feels a greater romantic, soul mate connection. But for now, you can face whether the two of you can rebuild the kind of relationship that you both want. Get the help of a good couples therapist if necessary. But if you decide it's better to end it, do it now, with mutual respect.

The upshot here is that most people are capable of self-directing their lives during the adult years. What you experience isn't some inexorable process that simply happens to you. It's the product of how you manage the changes within your mind/body/spirit; how you deal with the new possibilities that lie ahead.

And keep in mind what the novelist George Eliot wrote, "It is never too late to be what you might have become."

Douglas LaBier, Ph.D., a business psychologist and psychotherapist, is Director of the Center for Progressive Development in Washington, D.C.