Sat, Sep 02, 2017 - Page 9 News List

Is the midlife crisis real? Or is ‘adulting’ just hard?

A study by two economists shows a measurable decline in happiness for people in their 30s to 50s, but psychologists say it is not linked to age

By Claire Suddath  /  Bloomberg

Illustration: Kevin Sheu

Last month, two economists presented a working paper that offers statistical proof for the existence of the midlife crisis. In a survey of 1.3 million people across 51 countries, the researchers found that people report a measurable decline in happiness, starting in their 30s and continuing until around age 50, when they started to feel satisfied with their lives again.

“We’re seeing this U-shape, this psychological dip, over and over again. There is definitely a midlife low,” said Andrew Oswald, an economist at the University of Warwick and coauthor of the study.

There is just one problem: Psychologists say the midlife crisis does not exist.

“I had a little tussle with Oswald about this a year or two ago,” said Susan Krauss Whitborne, a professor of psychology and brain science at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst and just one of several psychologists who hold this view.

“I’ve been doing research for pretty much my whole career on adult development, and I’ve never found age linked definitively to anything psychological about a person. You can call it a midlife crisis. A quarter-life crisis, but whatever’s going on with you personally, you can’t blame it on age,” she said.

“I don’t know why some psychologists say it doesn’t exist,” said Oswald’s coauthor, David Blanchflower, an economics professor at Dartmouth College. “It’s blindingly obvious. All we did was plot the data points.”

“I don’t understand why they’re so set on this,” Whitborne said. “They’re economists. What if I tried to use psychoanalytical measures to index the economy?”

This beef is not purely academic. Alongside traditional economic factors, social well-being is a growing consideration for government policy and often, businesses. Because people should be happy, yes — and because happiness tends to go along with health and productivity, both of which are good for the economy.

The UN studies happiness. So does Bhutan. In 2011, Britain started conducting national mood surveys in the hopes that the nation’s general feeling of well-being may one day guide policy decisions the way gross domestic product and inflation do.

The US government does not have a similar survey, but the University of Chicago’s National Opinion Research Center has been conducting its General Social Survey, which asks about happiness, since 1972.

What governments and businesses should do with their findings is not for them to say, but it could be relevant to, say, public health policy on opiate addiction, or trying to decrease the suicide rate, Oswald and Blanchflower said.

(The two are currently interested in the use of antidepressants by middle-aged people.)

“We’re just concerned with the well-being of the country,” Blanchflower said. “Happiness is a part of that.”

The very idea of a midlife crisis originated in the early 1960s with a Canadian psychologist named Elliott Jaques. He was studying the creative habits of 310 famous artists, such as Mozart, Raphael and Gaugin, when he noticed a common trait: When the artists entered their mid-30s, their creative output waned. Some became depressed. A few committed suicide. Elliott then observed essentially the same pattern among his own clients.

As people approached middle-age, many of them became acutely aware that their lives were finite and, as a result, reported an increasing fear that they might not achieve their goals.

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