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Midlife does not have to be a crisis

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Contemporary discussions of life’s middle years often portray midlife as a low point. The 40s and early 50s are depicted as a time when physical decline, hormonal changes, work demands, family responsibilities and personal malaise combine to spark extreme behavior like ditching a spouse, quitting a job, getting excessive plastic surgery or acquiring a flashy sports car.

Social scientists often represent happiness across a person’s lifespan as following a U-shaped curve, in which people at midlife rate their own happiness lower than older or younger people.

But some researchers characterize that analysis as superficial, measuring fleeting emotions and missing what sustains people through life.

"Do we need happiness, or do we need fulfillment?" asks Susan Krauss Whitbourne of the University of Massachusetts Amherst, who studies personality development in adults. "You could be really unhappy today, but overall feel fulfilled, because what you’re doing fits in with a larger purpose.”

She contends that people who consider the big picture can navigate the inevitable ups and downs of life.

Social historian Steven Mintz of the University of Texas at Austin flips the U-curve and sees a peak of fulfillment in midlife, when many people have more responsibilities — with the opportunity to make more meaningful contributions — than at any other time.

“In terms of a meaningful life, you’re more likely to feel that at midlife than at any other point,” he said in an interview. “In fact, middle age is life’s prime, truly,” Mintz wrote in Psychology Today.

Happy or fulfilled

Mintz is skeptical of the U-curve because he thinks the stress associated with meaningful work and family responsibilities is interpreted as unhappiness in the moment.

The U-curve has been verified by numerous studies, however, including an influential 2008 study by David Blanchflower and Andrew Oswald.

Blanchflower and Oswald used a simple measure of happiness, asking people the question: “Taken all together, how would you say things are these days — would you say that you are very happy, pretty happy, or not too happy?’’ Charting the responses revealed that lifetime happiness follows a U-shaped curve in 72 countries throughout North America, South America, Europe, Asia and Africa. In the United States, the age for minimum happiness was 39 for women and 45 for men.

“I view this as a first-order discovery about human beings that will outlive us by hundreds of years,” Oswald told The Atlantic.

The U-curve concept can be reassuring for those experiencing dissatisfaction in midlife, because it implies that the natural course of things is for people to get happier in their 50s, 60s and beyond. “It gives people hope that if you just sit around and wait for it, things will get better,” Whitbourne said.

But she said the U-curve model is “based on a very superficial measure. They’re talking about happiness, and that’s not the same as other, deeper aspects of personality,” she said.

“It’s helpful to recognize that not every day is going to be one filled with joy,” Whitbourne said. “That’s some of the problem with happiness research. People get the idea that they have to be happy all the time, but it’s impossible.”

She uses parenting as an example of the kind of purposeful activity that doesn’t always bring happiness day to day. “You could be quite miserable today, for a variety of reasons having to do with your children, but do you regret having had children? Most people would not,” she said.

Pathways and confidants

Whitbourne advises asking yourself questions such as, “Are you doing what you feel is important? Are you motivated by a larger purpose?”

To capture that perspective, Whitbourne has conducted a detailed study following the life paths of the same 180 people for more than 40 years. Using detailed questionnaires administered over time, Whitbourne identified five typical pathways for navigating adulthood:

Meandering Way: You are unable to settle on a clear set of goals and a way to achieve those goals.

Straight and Narrow Path: Your life is characterized by predictability; you shy away from risk and don't enjoy changing your routines.

Downward Slope: You had everything going for you when you were young; however, things started to go wrong and now you regret your choices.

Triumphant Trail: Your inner resilience has allowed you to overcome significant challenges that could have led you to despair.

Authentic Road: You have continuously examined your life's direction and forced yourself to take an honest look at whether it is truly satisfying.

In her book “The Search for Fulfillment,” Whitbourne identifies the Triumphant Trail and the Authentic Road as the most positive life paths chosen by her study participants. She says midlife is not necessarily a unique time to ask questions about life's purpose, but instead that people often cope with midlife in a way consistent with their overall approach.

“Some people are always looking at the larger purpose," she says. "Some people never do.”

While acknowledging that the responsibilities of midlife are stressful but worthwhile, people still need to find the inner resources to cope with midlife’s challenges. Mintz advises cultivating close relationships, which he says is more difficult in today’s transient and fast-moving society than in the past.

“We cannot assume that we’re going to have a lifelong career. We cannot assume that we’re going to have a lifelong marriage. We cannot assume that we’re going to have the friends that we grew up with living near us for the rest of our lives," he says. "This is very difficult for many of us to deal with.”

To cope, Mintz recommends having a few confidants with whom you can discuss important decisions. This could be a spouse, friend, relative or even a therapist.

Another secret to thriving in midlife is learning from past successes as well as failures, Whitbourne says.

“Look back on times when you have done something positive with your life and realize that you have the ability to achieve fulfillment,” she advises. “The only thing you’ve really got going for yourself as you get older is experience. The people who age successfully accept themselves more, but they’ve also gained wisdom.”

mmaxwell@deseretnews.com.