Like many popular psychology beliefs, the midlife crisis remains one that people hold onto despite the attempts of researchers to show that it is a myth. Everyone seems to have a relative who’s gone through this supposed middle-aged metamorphosis. You may have a favorite uncle who made a sudden change in career or who decided to leave his family behind to start a new single life. “Oh,” everyone exclaims, “It’s just his midlife crisis.”

It seems nearly impossible to change the narrative about the midlife crisis (e.g., Galambos et al., 2021). You can conduct a Google search on the phrase and find any number of inaccurate representations of its universality (e.g., 4 Signs of a Midlife Crisis), length (How Long Does a Midlife Crisis Usually Last?), and progression (What Are the Six Stages of a Midlife Crisis?). These advice columns, though intended to be of help, only serve to reinforce a mistaken notion that everyone should expect to have their life thrust into turmoil when the calendar registers a certain age.

The latest data on emotional development in midlife comes from a large-scale study conducted by Ulm University’s Sophie Hoehne and Daniel Zimprich (2024). Using a measure known as the positive and negative affect scale (PANAS), the German researchers surveyed over 3,300 adults ranging from 18 to 99 years old in an attempt to identify shifts in well-being across the adult years. Their starting point was not with the idea that happiness caves in at midlife, but exactly the opposite, that people steadily become more emotionally gratified as they reach their later years.

Why would people be happier as they proceed through adulthood? Those in favor of the “U-shaped” happiness curve (i.e., midlife crisis) argue that it takes a crisis in order for people to achieve true fulfillment. Your uncle, according to this logic, could only achieve happiness as he makes it past his 50s and 60s if he takes this detour along the way. Instead, however, Hoehne and Zimprich, like many lifespan personality researchers, suggest that people go through a steady process of selecting their goals in ways that maximize their happiness.

This process of growth across adulthood, as the U. Uhm researchers maintain, occurs as people prioritize specific (achievable) goals, shift their time perspective, and become better able to regulate negative emotions. Although later life presents many challenges, it also affords people the ability to focus on what’s important to them as they look toward the future.

The German study, conducted as an investigation of positive psychology across the lifespan, included the PANAS along with measures of education and subjective (self-rated) health. The PANAS itself consists of 10 positive and 10 negative adjectives rated on a 1 (slightly or not at all) to 5 (extremely) scale. You can rate yourself on each of these here:

Positive:

Negative:

To compare your scores to those of the sample, the average per item on the positive scale was 3.5 (with most people scoring between 2.5 and 4.5) and approximately 2.0 on the negative (with the majority between 1.3 and 2.8).

As a mental health scale, the PANAS has the advantage of defining moods not just as a range from positive to negative but as independent dimensions. In other words, just because you are “excited” doesn’t mean you can’t also be “scared.” This bi-dimensional approach to well-being is not only more realistic than seeing well-being along a single dimension but also makes it possible to assess the degree to which you feel positive, negative, both, or neither.

The findings were important as much for what the research team found as for what it did not. The positive component of the PANAS, as the authors had predicted, was a steady upward increase across adulthood. At the same time, up through age 70 or so, negative affect took a downward turn. Subjective health ratings played an important role, however, as people rating themselves lower in this quality started to show negative effects on well-being after the age of 70.

The intensity of both types of affect also decreased across older groups of adults, reinforcing the idea that people find ways to self-regulate their emotions. The highs may not be as high, but neither are the lows.

As is true of all research on aging, the findings could be affected by the fact that only the survivors are available to be tested. The less psychologically healthy individuals may no longer have been alive or perhaps not willing to be tested. However, the fact remains that there was no evidence of a falling-off in well-being in midlife, as would be expected if the midlife crisis were to have occurred with these participants.

As you can see from these findings, life only gets better as people pass through the decades of adulthood, at least in terms of mood. However, this doesn’t mean that individuals don’t vary in their degree of mental health. One of the main questions of the study was to find out if the PANAS would be statistically suitable for all age groups, and this question was confirmed.

Returning to the question of the midlife crisis, the authors concluded resoundingly that midlife was, rather than being a time of turmoil, one of increased opportunities for growth. In their words, “Midlife is often a time when individuals become more mature and integrated, and where they can grow from work and family successes, leading to feelings of fulfillment and better mental health.”

It is also important to incorporate the findings on subjective health into this sunny portrayal of midlife. At all ages, but particularly in the later years, people who rated their health as worse also showed lower psychological well-being. As you get older, you definitely can’t control the calendar, but you can strive for better physical health.

To sum up, the German study shows that, once again, the midlife crisis disappears when placed under the statistical microscope. Look for factors other than age to explain your well-being, and the pathway toward fulfillment will become much more achievable.

References

Galambos, N. L., Krahn, H. J., Johnson, M. D., & Lachman, M. E. (2021). Another Attempt to Move Beyond the Cross-Sectional U Shape of Happiness: A Reply. Perspectives on psychological science, 16(6), 1447-1455. https://doi.org/10.1177/17456916211008823

Hoehne, S., & Zimprich, D. (2024). Age-related differences in trait affect: Establishing measurement invariance of the Positive and Negative Affect Schedule (PANAS). Psychology and Aging. https://doi.org/10.1037/pag0000810

QOSHE - It’s Not a Midlife Crisis, It’s More Like a Midlife Boost - Susan Krauss Whitbourne Phd
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It’s Not a Midlife Crisis, It’s More Like a Midlife Boost

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15.06.2024

Like many popular psychology beliefs, the midlife crisis remains one that people hold onto despite the attempts of researchers to show that it is a myth. Everyone seems to have a relative who’s gone through this supposed middle-aged metamorphosis. You may have a favorite uncle who made a sudden change in career or who decided to leave his family behind to start a new single life. “Oh,” everyone exclaims, “It’s just his midlife crisis.”

It seems nearly impossible to change the narrative about the midlife crisis (e.g., Galambos et al., 2021). You can conduct a Google search on the phrase and find any number of inaccurate representations of its universality (e.g., 4 Signs of a Midlife Crisis), length (How Long Does a Midlife Crisis Usually Last?), and progression (What Are the Six Stages of a Midlife Crisis?). These advice columns, though intended to be of help, only serve to reinforce a mistaken notion that everyone should expect to have their life thrust into turmoil when the calendar registers a certain age.

The latest data on emotional development in midlife comes from a large-scale study conducted by Ulm University’s Sophie Hoehne and Daniel Zimprich (2024). Using a measure known as the positive and negative affect scale (PANAS), the German researchers surveyed over 3,300 adults ranging from 18 to 99 years old in an attempt to identify shifts in well-being across the adult years. Their starting point was not with the idea that happiness caves in at midlife, but exactly the opposite, that people steadily become more emotionally gratified as they reach their later years.

Why would people be happier........

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