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Rethink the Midlife Crisis

Why is our society so dismissive and negative about big changes that happen in midlife? And what if midlife reinvention, as I prefer to call it, isn't a crisis at all but an opportunity for self-discovery as we transition from one phase of life to another?
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By Sue Chen, CEO of NOVA Medical

I didn't date someone half my age or buy myself a sports car. But when my friends heard I was planning to start a hazelnut farm on 22 acres of land I'd bought in rural Oregon, some of them -- along with my mother -- came up with the same diagnosis: midlife crisis.

I could see where they were coming from. I was a successful woman in my mid-forties making a radical life change. But I was also convinced that change wasn't a "crisis" -- a term I've always found a little dismissive, as if everything I was feeling could be reduced to a cliché.

To me, what I was feeling wasn't cliché at all. While most of my friends know me as a citified businesswoman, part of me is still the country girl of my youth. It was that country girl who had fallen in love with the rolling hills of the Pacific Northwest. My hazelnut farm wasn't about fear of getting older; it was about connecting deeply with my roots. How could my friends be so wrong?

Their reaction got me curious: Why is our society so dismissive and negative about big changes that happen in midlife? And what if midlife reinvention, as I prefer to call it, isn't a crisis at all but an opportunity for self-discovery as we transition from one phase of life to another?

The upside of the U-curve

We should re-categorize middle age malaise into what it really is: a natural ebb in the life-cycle of human happiness. Research shows that for most people, lifelong psychological well-being is U-shaped. Happiness and feelings of satisfaction tend to peak during one's youth, dip during middle age, and then rise again through the senior years. Social scientists have been examining the U-curve since the 1990s, but the concept didn't really make the transition from scholarly obscurity to cocktail party conversation until last December, when The Atlantic published a cover story by Jonathan Rauch on the U-curve and "the real roots of midlife crisis."

In Rauch, I found a kindred understanding of the emotional ebb of midlife, along with the unlikely promise it holds. Rauch writes that he wished he had known about the U-curve while still in his forties, because with it comes the understanding "that happiness may be affected by age, and the hard part in middle age, whether you call it a midlife crisis or something else, is for many people a transition to something much better -- something, there is reason to hope, like wisdom." For Rauch, the real significance of the U-curve is neither scientific nor medical, but instead cultural, as it allows us to shift the narrative on aging, and "tell a different and better story about life in middle age and beyond."

A big change that sticks

I believe that the real story of middle age is one of creativity and transformation. Despite its many negative associations, middle age -- and its relative stability -- allows us the time and space to try new things. As we age, we also get better at maintaining our self-image and adapting our expectations to reality, both of which can strongly affect our sense of well-being. Perhaps this "adaptive self-plasticity," as Paul D. Baltes, director of the Max Planck Institute for Human Development, defined it in a 2003 paper, is part of the reason that U-curve begins showing increased happiness after its midlife nadir. Not only do we have the stability to experiment and try new things, but we can do so without being constrained by the weight of our expectations, or our formerly brittle sense of self.

For me, the experiment has turned out well so far. I'm building a house on my 22 acres, and I also found a farming partner through Oregon's Hazelnut Growers Association. I've decided to name my patch of land Cow Pig Dragon farm, after the Chinese zodiac signs of my niece, nephew, and father. My father passed away when I was 14, but while he was alive we used to work side by side on our land, shoveling manure, mixing fertilizer, and planting trees. It's an experience I hope to continue for years to come with my niece and nephew.

Ultimately, midlife can offer an unprecedented opportunity for both inner and outer growth, but not if we hold back due to fear of the "midlife crisis" label and stigma. Doing something seemingly crazy isn't necessarily a bad idea, especially when you're following a dream. As Brim told the New York Times in 1989, "If they had lived in our times, the midlife crisis label would have been applied to Paul Gauguin taking off at 43 to paint in Tahiti or Albert Schweitzer going to Africa at 38 to build his medical clinic." The very same unexpected transitions that friends may laugh off could have the power to shape who we become. So be bold and brave. It's never too late to start the next chapter of the rest of your life.

With contribution from Julia Wick of Hippo Reads.

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