“Welcome to the Den of Horrors.”
Leslie Knope, the go-getting super-administrator in the peppy sitcom Parks and Recreation is telling it like it is to a group of costumed children at the Parks Department Halloween party. “Where’s all the scary stuff?” asks one of the kids, perplexed.
“The scary stuff is invisible, Leah,” sighs Knope: “Broken dreams. Disappointment. Achieving your greatest goal, having it all fall apart, and knowing that you’ll never climb any higher. It’s very possible that some of you have already peaked. It’s all downhill from here, turkeys.”
Leslie’s acute midlife crisis, triggered by losing her seat on the city council in Season 6, lasts roughly 24 hours and manifests largely in a fast-food binge followed by a failed attempt to get a tattoo. But for many who’ve reached a certain age and recognize her overwhelming feeling of futility, the despondency goes much deeper and casts a much longer shadow over their lives.
The popular image of sudden-onset middle-aged angst is that it largely affects career-minded, ambitious types whose enviable lives stall, slide into morose dissatisfaction and who react to this in often juvenile, sad or laughable ways. The most extreme examples often do fit this profile, and their sudden personal reinventions tend to assume one of two broad stereotypes. There’s the classic pattern of a desire for new-people sex and frantic youth-recapturing — such as that experienced by journalist Robin Rinaldi, who after 18 years of faithful monogamy decided to embark on a promiscuous open-relationship experiment; her year-long Wild Oats Project proved great for her confidence, less so for her marriage. Or there’s the updated, more mystical Eat, Pray, Love reaction, where you check out of all work and social commitments for the foreseeable future and vanish in a cloud of self-discovery. When Google’s former Chief Financial Officer announced he was taking early retirement at 52, for instance, he declared in a blog post that it was so he could go traveling with his wife, “and enjoy a perfectly fine midlife crisis full of bliss and beauty.”
It might be easy enough to multi-trip your way out of a midlife slump when, like that financial officer, you’ve been getting by on an estimated salary package of $3.5 million a year. But according to MIT philosophy professor Kieran Setiya, author of the book Midlife: A Philosophical Guide, while those with stellar career trajectories provide the most spectacular examples when they plunge, it’s a condition that can overtake any of us — and in a multiplicity of quieter, less obvious ways. “It’s not one-size-fits-all,” he says. For some, the emotional downswing is related to failure and thwarted ambitions; for others it’s regret about the road not taken and experiences they’ve missed out on; for others still, it might just be “the crushing burden of everything that needs to be done just to keep life going.” Which is a sentence that can only have come from a man who’s been there himself.
Setiya’s own midlife crisis kicked in soon after he’d turned 35 and seen many of his ambitions already realized. “I had been building my life around demanding goals, and I had been very lucky in how they’d turned out.” But having got to where he’d wanted to be, he says, “the basic structure of my life had now sort of dropped out.” Like the kids inducted into Leslie Knope’s Den of Horrors, Setiya found he’d peaked too soon and could see nothing ahead of him but a comfortable academic career progression. His lot was teaching classes, writing books, publishing papers and professional plateau: “In so far as I was a driven, Type-A person, I could do more of the same, but it wasn’t clear that the plan I’d chosen had any further peaks; this was pretty much the top.”
Luckily for him, he wasn’t a multimillionaire tech exec who could cash it all in for sports cars and globetrotting, but a moral philosopher with lots of experience in prising apart fuzzy concepts to explore their hidden meanings and qualities. And what could be fuzzier than the notion of a midlife crisis — which takes on so many different forms, and is such a lazily applied buzz term in popular culture that many psychologists remain unconvinced it’s a real, diagnosable thing.
Hard to refute it thus if you’re in the middle of one, though. And when Setiya kicked his own experience of it, what struck him was that his working life felt hollow where it hadn’t before. Particularly troubling was “the thought that, ‘I’m just going to do this — I’m going to just teach another class, and then if I work really hard I could die having published 40 papers rather than 37…’ That was the basic shape of my life, and that was disorienting.”
Second came the surprising realization that his issue wasn’t really with the things that constituted his day-to-day themselves — he still valued his job, and still believed that thinking about humans making choices, and writing papers about these thoughts, was, overall, a non-futile pursuit. “Part of it was fear of death,” he recalls, “but part of it was what this made vivid to me — that my approach to life was project-driven. That’s what started me thinking: What’s the mistake involved in orienting your life around projects, given that the projects seem worthwhile?”
Battles of Midway
Visualizing hills, plateaus, summits and slopes is a common theme among people trying to get to the roots of midlife panic. Setiya says picturing his own lifespan in this way echoes the imagery used by Elliott Jaques, the Canadian psychoanalyst who was credited with coining the phrase “midlife crisis” some time in the late 1950s. The term began to be popularized after the publication in 1965 of his influential essay “Death and the Midlife Crisis,” which studied the role middle-age turmoil consistently seemed to play in the careers of creative artists.
In it, to illustrate the concept for skeptical peers, Jaques chose an image described to him by a 37-year-old patient: “I seem to have reached the crest of the hill, and there stretching ahead is the downward slope with the end of the road in sight — far enough away it’s true — but there is death observably present at the end.” From this point on, says Jaques, “this patient’s plans and ambitions took on a different hue. He began his adjustment to the fact that he would not be able to accomplish in the span of a single lifetime everything he had desired to do. Much would have to remain unfinished and unrealized.”
Here’s a more muscular interpretation of much the same thing from the English novelist Martin Amis, reflecting on his experience, in 1995: “I used to think, before I had one, that the midlife crisis was something that happened to weak-minded chumps who didn’t have backbone. Now I believe that midlife crises are structural: They’re to do with your whole life. And what gets them going is a hysterical overreaction to the certainty that you’re going to die.”
In recent decades, the disruptions of middle age have become intriguingly associated with another image that claims to reveal the overall contour of our lives — one drawn by economists rather than psychologists, and which inverts Jaques’ classic midlife hump. The much-touted theory of the “happiness U-curve” has emerged from a growing body of research looking into the development of well-being over a lifetime — how people’s age affects their happiness, essentially. While the critical ages vary from study to study, data gleaned from international life-satisfaction surveys since the 1990s has uncovered a recurring pattern: On aggregate, people begin adulthood broadly happily in their early 20s; happiness declines through their 30s, reaching a nadir somewhere between their 40s or 50s; and then overall contentment increases again in senior decades (until, of course, physical decline ultimately intervenes).
The curve’s implication — that the propensity for a midlife crisis is hard-wired in our biology — depends on a good deal of statistical processing (subjective well-being surveys are messy things, data-wise) and is not without its critics. But it’s a pattern that’s been borne out again very recently, in a study by one of the early pioneers of well-being research, David Blanchflower of Dartmouth College, who has found “evidence of a well-being U-shape in age in 132 countries, including 95 developing countries, controlling for education, marital and labor-force status.” Scouring a vast amount of data, Blanchflower pegs the average emotional low point in a human life at 47.2 years of age, and unambiguously declares: “The happiness curve is everywhere.”
According to some research, it might even extend to other species — one oft-cited study, from 2012, has claimed to find the U-curve influencing the emotional lifespans of chimpanzees and orangutans. What all of this means for the popular concept of the midlife crisis as a catastrophic lapse in judgement isn’t exactly clear. But if we are, as a species, genetically predisposed to turbulent middle years, it does mean it isn’t the quintessentially modern malaise we assume it to be.
In coining the term, Jaques certainly saw it as a universal experience. He was inspired by the 14th century poet Dante, whose midlife crisis, Jaques thought, informed the journey through hell described in The Divine Comedy. His 1965 paper goes on to discern middle-age faltering in a wide panoply of artists, writers and composers: Bach, Beethoven, Rossini, Michelangelo, Constable, Goya, Gauguin, Goethe, Dickens — all of their altered styles in later life he puts down to a crisis experienced at some point in their 30s or later.
Jaques wasn’t even the first to explore the topic in forensic detail. Almost a century before he gave it a name, one of the most stately meditations on the midlife crisis was written by Leo Tolstoy, in his short 1879 work A Confession. In his early 50s and brooding on death, Tolstoy recalls that all the sweetness had vanished from the “honey” of both his writing and his family life. In the depths of his predicament, he says, the only logical solution appeared to be suicide — until, without explanation, his U-curve began to swing upwards and “imperceptibly and gradually did that force of life return to me.”
It’s well-documented, meanwhile, that at almost exactly the same time, another troubled Russian great, the composer Tchaikovsky, underwent a severe emotional breakdown at 37, following a failed marriage. Suffering from writer’s block and anguish over his homosexuality, he spent a year working through it all on a desperate retreat on the shores of Lake Geneva, in the course of which he composed one of the most celebrated violin concertos in the musical canon.
Here’s the sound of his midlife crisis in full flow, and it’s sweeter than you might expect:
If our lives are destined to go a little saggy in the middle, what can we do about it, given that we can’t all compose a timeless concerto to reintroduce a sense of purpose?
On Setiya’s analysis, it would be a mistake to even try. “When you’re aiming to complete a project,” he explains, “you’re always looking at satisfaction in the future — and you haven’t got there yet.” Once you’ve completed that task, that satisfaction is a phantom, because “the moment you’ve finished, it’s done, and now it’s in the past.” Worst of all, he says, “adding insult to injury is that in the present, when you’re striving to compete a project, what you’re doing is you’re taking this thing that’s meaningful in your life and the way you’re relating to it is to sort of destroy it — exhaust it, get it out of your life.”
For Setiya, this is the pain at the heart of a midlife crisis, and why a project-oriented approach to living makes you particularly vulnerable to it. Just about all of us tend never to question the idea “that the thing that matters in life is to get stuff done.” But when getting stuff done takes the form of a finite and “diminishing checklist,” with each tick in the box you’re draining from your life another tankful of purpose. If you have a goal-driven sort of personality, the anxiety this produces can be acute. “At least it can if that’s the only way you’re thinking about what’s meaningful in life,” Setiya adds.
Thankfully, all this goal-wariness does leave open the possibility of a palliative — or even a preventative — for midlife difficulties. “The key thing to realize,” says Setiya, “is that not all activities have that project-like structure.” He draws a distinction between activities that have a clearly defined end-point, which he calls “telic” activities (from the Greek “telos,” meaning “goal”) and those that don’t — the “atelic” pursuits that people engage in for their own sake. And these non-goal-oriented activities, he argues, are “the key things to have in your life,” which might ease you through a confrontation with mortality.
“Getting a promotion at work would be telic,” he explains, as would “starting a family, or getting married. They’ve got a goal or end-point.” By contrast, “parenting doesn’t have an end-point at which you’re done with it — it’s an ongoing, atelic activity.” Spending time with friends would be atelic too, as would learning a musical instrument, or simply going for a walk. Even your day-to-day work can have that positive, grounding atelic quality, he suggests, if you’re able to view it distinct from the targets, KPIs and benchmarks that might drive it.
For Setiya, philosophy had once been something that was led by the love of it. “It was atelic. But by becoming a professional, it had been warped into this structure where my love of philosophy now took the form of ‘Finish this article, get tenure, get a promotion…’”
If you can identify the atelic activity that’s been quietly enriching your life in the background (and that you might have lost sight of) and you “attend to it in a way that isn’t distracted by the goals or end-points that you might be aiming at,” you might be onto something. Carefully sifting those overbearing goal-led projects for their more valuable, life-affirming aspects is no doubt a helpful insight — one that might eventually save your career, your relationship, your wardrobe and your self-esteem all at the same time.
Another way to see this is in the ways our priorities have altered due to pandemic protocols. Living in lockdown might have prompted many of us to embark on overly ambitious projects to fill up our days, but, far from presenting a minefield of midlife-crisis triggers, Setiya sees this as a rare opportunity to experiment in prioritizing journey over destination. In the current situation, he says, the urge to complete isn’t really what’s driving us: “There’s a sense that you want to be creatively doing something, improving your life or being productively active — and those are all atelic activities. The particular DIY project [you might have taken on] is maybe secondary. So I think these are cases where people are often engaging in projects for the sake of, in a way that’s subordinate to an atelic process.”
Ya Basic Principles
By now, of course, it’s an unforgivable internet cliché in anything that touches on philosophy to turn to the wisdom of Ron Swanson. But in this instance, he’s worth invoking for at least two reasons. First, Setiya holds his hand up to being a fan of the unlikely moral-philosophy-based sitcom The Good Place. Aside from the occasional technical gripe, he thinks it’s “a great piece of TV” that “has brought a bunch of pretty well-presented historical and contemporary ideas in moral philosophy to an unbelievably wide and enthusiastic audience.” But more specifically, Setiya is a longtime fan of the NBC hit’s creator, Michael Schur, who was also the comic genius behind Parks and Rec — the show where the taciturn Ron Swanson achieved cult status as a master-woodworking, whiskey-worshipping sage of bygone, unreconstructed masculinity.
The second justification is that in his real-life love of carpentry, the actor who plays Swanson, Nick Offerman, seems to perfectly capture the sense of pleasure and vitality that engaging in a task for its own sake, rather than for the boo-ya of its completion, can generate. Here, in a piece Offerman wrote for HuffPo back in 2012, he is talking about the joy of finishing off a project — but his focus is on the process itself: “Oiling wood which has been shaped and sanded and smoothed is indescribably pleasurable. Witnessing the grain and depth of color and figure come alive through the saturation of the oil finish feels akin to playing a rousing symphony or golfing a hole-in-one. I imagine. I don’t golf.” He also, you have to assume, doesn’t midlife crisis.
As for his own speed bump, Setiya has been dutifully applying his own insights to his to-do list, and he reports generally positive results. But he also warns that it hasn’t been easy. “You can understand, or think you understand, what’s wrong with you and what you need to do to make progress,” he says. “But actually making the emotional shift doesn’t come for free.” To his slight embarrassment, and despite skepticism toward its woolier aspects, he admits to trying out mindfulness meditation as a way to ingrain an atelic perspective, and he has found it’s been helpful.
Perhaps, though, his biggest tip for anyone who finds they are dealing with a long, dark midday of the soul is simply this: Don’t do anything reckless. Guiding him through, he says, the mantra was: “You’re very lucky, and many of the things you’re going through are just sort of inevitable features of life. You can’t have everything. Of course there’s disappointment and regret. So the goal was always: Accept things as they are, and find a way to see the value in what you’ve already got. And I do think there’s real merit in that.”