Yet Another Blow to the Myth of the Midlife Crisis

We keep hearing about the universality of the midlife crisis, from popular television shows to news articles hailing the massive shift in personality experienced by the 30- to 50-somethings. It doesn't matter that the data continue to refute the notion. Other than a handful of ancient studies on rather biased samples, there simply is no evidence of a tectonic shift in the psyche's plates during the midlife years.

The reasons for the myth's persistence continue to fascinate me. Partly it's because people are such poor statisticians. We remember the two or three cases of people we know who prove the myth to be true and disregard the dozens, if not hundreds, of others in our acquaintance who continue steadfastly through the middle decades of life. There's also a fascination and allure to the midlife crisis. Seen as a foible of the rich and famous (who can afford the outrageously expensive sports cars that go with the myth), we feel that some of their celebrity rubs off on us when we can connect to the changes they seem to be going through.

The alternative to the midlife crisis myth, that the middle decades are full of the same-old same-old of work, marriage, childcare, and the like, seems like an unattractive way to imagine the arc that our lives will take. Indeed, the old view of personality, that it's set in plaster by the age of 30, if not earlier, is also now considered a myth in view of the heaps of evidence showing that people can change, albeit in gradual ways, at any point in life (e.g. Stephan et al., 2014).

My latest personality study, on which data will be presented at the upcoming American Psychological Association Convention adds yet more fuel to the anti-midlife crisis flames. In this study, my colleague Seth Schwartz from the University of Miami along with Lemoyne College graduate Taylor R. Lewis, analyzed the responses of nearly 500 midlife and older adults (from the 30s to the late 60s) to a simple scale known as the Meaning in Life Questionnaire (MLQ; Steger et al., 2006).

The MLQ is a neat questionnaire. With only 10 items, it's quick to take, and the scoring involves adding up people's responses to two 5-item subscales: Presence of Meaning in Life (e.g. "I understand my life's meaning") and Search for Meaning in Life (e.g. "I am always looking to find my life's purpose."). We administered this questionnaire to our sample via an online survey site, asking them also to describe their current state of well-being and overall satisfaction.

The key question for the purpose of documenting a midlife crisis was whether participants in their 40s, supposedly in the throes of its worst torment, would rate themselves as unusually low in the Presence of Meaning and unusually high in Search for Meaning. After crunching the numbers, my colleagues and I concluded that, yet again, the midlife crisis doesn't exist. The participants with the highest Search for Meaning scores were in their 30s, and the mean scores decreased in a straight line after that across the remaining age groups of the 40-, 50-, and 60-year-olds. The opposite pattern showed up in Purpose in Life. The 60-somethings were comfortably secure in feeling that they knew what their lives were about, and the 30-somethings were not. The 40-year-olds were simply a data point on an otherwise invariant straight line.

Of course, there are variations from person to person based not just on age but on personality in such qualities as finding purpose and meaning in life. Also, the people with the highest MLQ Meaning scores and lowest Search scores had the highest levels of well-being. Here again, though, as in so many surveys of thousands of adults, there were no clear age-related valleys (or peaks) in midlife in any of these qualities.

If you're a firm believer in the midlife crisis, because you know someone who had one or had one yourself, you may still shrug off the study's findings. Personal experience is hard to argue with when all I've got to muster for my case are a set of numbers. However, I do hope you will use the findings of my latest study to think twice before you accept the midlife crisis idea uncritically. It's possible the people who are the unhappiest at midlife are unhappy not because of their age but because of life circumstances or even a lifetime of a depressed mood or anxious personality. In either case, people who are hurting in midlife can benefit from treatment. You don't have to accept sadness at midlife because you think it's a "phase." Seeking help can benefit you and those you care about the most, whatever the cause may be.

References:

Steger, M. F., Frazier, P., Oishi, S., & Kaler, M. (2006). The meaning in life questionnaire: Assessing the presence of and search for meaning in life. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 53, 80-93. doi:10.1037/0022-0167.53.1.80

Stephan, Y., Sutin, A. R., & Terracciano, A. (2014). Physical activity and personality development across adulthood and old age: Evidence from two longitudinal studies. Journal Of Research In Personality, 491-7. doi:10.1016/j.jrp.2013.12.003

Whitbourne, S.K., Lewis, T.R., & Schwartz, S.J., (2015). Meaning in Life and Subjective Well-Being Across Adult Age Groups. Paper to be given at the 2015 Annual Convention of the American Psychological Association, Toronto CA, August 6-9.