There really is such a thing as a midlife crisis. But don’t worry, it doesn’t last.

Research shows that satisfaction with life follows a U-shape—gradually falling from early adulthood and reaching a low point around the ages of 40 to 42. But it then reverses direction and keeps rising to the age of 70.

A new study, published in the Economic Journal, that followed more than 50,000 adults through their lives, offers evidence for a midlife low in human happiness and wellbeing. The findings show there really is a kind of midlife “crisis” in people’s feelings of satisfaction with their lives.

The idea of U-shaped wellbeing over much of the human lifespan is not a new one. Indeed, this pattern has been documented for a large number of countries using cross-sectional data—that is data covering different people at a point in time. But until now, researchers have not been able to replicate this pattern with genuinely longitudinal data—data on the same people observed over time.

For the new study, Andrew Oswald of the University of Warwick and colleagues at the University of Queensland analyzed four different data sets covering three countries—Australia, Britain, and Germany. Collectively, these datasets track the lives of tens of thousands of individuals over time. The primary outcome of interest was happiness and well-being, which was measured using a conventional life satisfaction questionnaire asking individuals to indicate how satisfied they are with their lives.

The authors propose a novel longitudinal test of a U-shape in wellbeing. The test is based on a simple mathematical fact from school calculus: that the derivative of a quadratic function is linear. This implies that it is possible to test for a U-shape in life satisfaction by examining the change in life satisfaction.

Applying the test to the data (rather than examining how levels of life satisfaction vary across different people, as it is usually done), the authors investigated the within-person changes in life satisfaction, and documented how these changes evolved over time.

This emphasis on following the changes in life satisfaction in the same people is important, the researchers say, because it implies that any results consistent with a U-shape in wellbeing can’t be due to a fluke or to differences from one individual to another. They must stem instead from changes through time in the quality of the lives of these individuals.

4 COMMENTS

  1. both men and women, say that they suffer about midlife crisis, but to be exact and to be realistic there is not that, but what exists is that in the stage of adolescence and pre-adulthood has not solved or has not achieved in his life, for example, get married, have steady employment, have wives and children, both men and women, when they don’t have that from adolescence to about 40 years old, suffer from a supposed age crisis, but it is not like that when a person is successful and has done all that in his life when he reaches 40 or 50 years old he will not suffer that because he already has what he wished for. i have not seen middle-aged people who have wives, children, good life, who do not have that feeling of that. but i have seen mediocre people around 40 or 50 years old who have that feeling of that.

    when they don’t do any of that so that life has purpose in the future they will feel the sense of age crisis, but in reality it’s the unresolved life episode.

    • I hope not to feel it. It would hurt me a lot if because of the current situation I could not develop myself in the sport I like and compete as I have planned in the not too distant future, maybe in 2022 I can do it. Not to deliver all that I have to prove, not to be able to push my body to the limit and become older only to reproach myself for never having encouraged myself to do it. That would be like my unresolved life episode should I reach 40.

      • It depends on the interests of each person I guess, you know, that thing you stop doing to pay attention to other things but because of work or situations that put you on the edge of the abyss, those who work too much to have a better life in the end they realize that they ended up being slaves of their work and when they want to vacation or quit they realize it’s too late, the years are gone and now they just have to resign themselves (sad). Personally I have never worried about a family, I don’t even know if I really want to form one and if it happens it will happen, like love, if not the same thing.

        As I said above, the things that would hurt me not to do would be the same things I thought about working for, to have money for myself and to go as far as I -only- can go. Once I am stable and enjoying my achievements, knowing that I am fulfilling myself materially and morally, then I will make room for other things like sharing my life with someone else. Right now yes, I am very selfish but it is also instinct and survival, no one is going to come to pay me anything or lift me up from where I am.

        I know that not everything is possible in the world and I will surely take one or another unfinished thing with me, but let it be as little as possible, that’s what I’m taking care of right now.

  2. I think I will reach that age with a crisis.
    Because I don’t have a steady job, I could be fired at any moment and I’m already over 30 years old.

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