How to Deal with a Midlife Crisis

No matter what age you are, every day provides a new opportunity to do something new.
midlife crisis

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A similar version of this article was originally published on Lifehack.org.

After graduating from University of Wisconsin, I moved to Chicago to pursue comedy, using a brilliantly devised strategy.

By day, I’d find my inspiration in hip and trendy coffee bistros and on El trains, gazing out at the quickly passing cityscape. By night, I’d play at open mics, only to catch the ear of George Wendt, sign a development deal, and be thrust headlong into comedic superstardom.

As it turned out, telling dick jokes to drunkards on Monday nights didn’t quite foot the bill for my 400-square-foot palace without air-conditioning. And, as far as I could tell, George Wendt didn’t leave the house much.

So, much to my chagrin, I took a job in advertising.

After two years in Chicago, during which I was gripped by depression and angst, I moved back to Omaha – my hometown – to “figure things out.”

Of course, instead of figuring things out, I took another job in advertising.

Then, another.

And, another.

For over a decade, I bounced around from role to role, only to sit lamentably in a cubicle and do work that could have been done by a half-trained Capuchin monkey.

Before I knew it, I turned 30 years old. I began to examine my life and panic swept in.

What have I been doing for the last 10 years? There has to be more to life than this. I’ve gotta get the fuck out of here. I need to make a change. NOW.

Midlife or otherwise, I do believe I was having a crisis.

If you believe that you’re having a midlife crisis – even if you aren’t middle-aged – I can assure you that you’re not alone. I can also assure you that it’s never too late to start creating the kind of life that you want.

So many of us slog through each day, only to look around and realize that we’ve been letting life pass us by.

Don’t let life pass you by. With any luck, you’ll begin to see the midlife crisis for what it really is: an opportunity.

What Exactly Is a Midlife Crisis?

A midlife crisis is generally defined as a transition of identity and self-confidence that occurs in middle-aged individuals (typically 45 to 64 years old). This psychological “crisis” is fueled by events that bring to light a person’s age, inevitable mortality, and perhaps a lack of notable accomplishments in adult life.

Not surprisingly, this can lead to feelings of depression, anxiety, and the desire to make significant life changes.

Incidentally, the term “midlife crisis” was coined by Canadian psychoanalyst and social scientist, Elliott Jaques, in 1965. (Funny enough, Jaques also coined the term “corporate culture.”)

Recent studies have shown that most middle-aged people don’t actually experience a midlife crisis. In fact, some have questioned if the midlife crisis even exists.

For many of men and women, however, the midlife crisis is all too real.

Signs of a Midlife Crisis

Released in 1999, American Beauty is perhaps the greatest film ever made about the midlife crisis. As you may remember, the film won the Academy Award for Best Picture, Best Director (Sam Mendes), and Best Actor (Kevin Spacey). And you can thank screenwriter Alan Ball for the effectively flawless script.

In the film, Lester Burnham, played by Kevin Spacey (Sorry for bringing him up), loathes his job as an advertising executive, can barely stand his materialistic wife, and has no idea how to communicate with his angry, misanthropic, teenage daughter.

From the outside, the Burnhams seem to have the perfect, white-picket-fence existence. But behind closed doors, Lester has become disenchanted with, well…damn near everything.

The film’s critically praised opening montage gives us a look into Lester Burnham’s dull and monotonous daily life, as Lester unenthusiastically narrates each scene.

“I have lost something,” he says. “I’m not exactly sure what it is but I know I didn’t always feel this . . . sedated.”

Most modern movies and television shows have left us believing that the first sign of a midlife crisis in men and women is a newly purchased sports car in the driveway. But as American Beauty shows us, the signs of a midlife crisis are usually much less obvious to ordinary passersby.

Common signs of a midlife crisis can include:

  • Mood swings: Those experiencing a midlife crisis can seem highly temperamental, becoming angry or irritable without justification.
  • Depression and anxiety: A midlife crisis can undoubtedly cause one to feel sad, blue, restless, down in the dumps, or just plain miserable.
  • Sleeplessness or oversleeping: Depression, anxiety, and a constantly spinning mind can greatly affect one’s sleeping habits.
  • An obsession with appearances: Those going through a midlife crisis often feel the need to remain attractive to others.
  • Increased consumption of drugs or alcohol: Middle-aged adults may turn to drugs or alcohol to mask their feelings.
  • Feeling stuck in a rut: Those going through a midlife crisis often feel like they’re stuck – in a bad job, a bad marriage, a bad situation – with no way out.
  • Thoughts of death or dying: A midlife crisis can cause people to think obsessively about their own mortality.

Other signs of a midlife crisis include impulsive decision-making, having an affair, replacing old friends with younger friends, assigning blame to others, and extreme boredom.

What Causes a Midlife Crisis?

It bears repeating that recent studies seem to reject the idea that most adults go through a midlife crisis. Researchers believe that personality type and a history of psychological issues predispose some people to the traditional midlife crisis.

One study points out that there is a stark difference between a midlife crisis and midlife stressors, and many midlife stressors are mislabeled as a crisis. Of course, common day-to-day stressors can pile up, causing middle-aged adults to believe they are having a crisis. A midlife crisis in men may sometimes be just midlife stressors.

Additionally, many middle-aged men experience life events that can lead to prolonged depression or psychological distress. However, these events – like the death of a loved one or a professional setback – can just as easily happen earlier in life.

Take me, for example. Just before my 30th birthday, my father – who was the picture of health – died suddenly and unexpectedly while exercising at the gym. Not to mention that I detested my low-paying 9 to 5 job, published a book that didn’t sell, started a company that failed, ruined a number of friendships, and had far less sex than I’d like to admit.

Was I having a crisis? Possibly. Was I experiencing depression due to an overload of stressors? Most definitely.

Still, do any amount of research on the midlife crisis and you’ll find that psychologists often attribute the phenomenon to aging itself, the aging or death of one’s parents, the maturation of one’s children, spousal relationships (or lack thereof) and career (or lack thereof).

How to Deal with a Midlife Crisis

If you believe you’re having a midlife crisis, if you feel stuck in a rut, if you’re experiencing depression and anxiety, I’d like to assure you once again that you’re not alone. A midlife crisis in men is normal.

I once considered myself a lost cause, predestined to live out my days feeling miserable and unfulfilled. Then, I decided to change. I became dedicated to learning how to live with at least some measure of joy.

I can’t guarantee that my regimen will work for you. But I do know that it won’t hurt. And should you choose to give it a try, you’ll need to do the following:

DECIDE

Someone once said that “the first step toward getting somewhere is to decide that you’re not going to stay where you are.” And, I couldn’t agree more. This is truly where the work begins.

I began to experience a shift only after I made the decision – no, the unbreakable promise to myself – that I was going to change my life. And no matter how much you’re suffering, you can make yourself the same promise.

STOP THE SEARCH FOR HAPPINESS

There’s a funny thing with us humans. We spend our lives trying desperately to find happiness and yet, we don’t even know what it is.

We can’t explain, describe, or define it; we just know that we want it because it’ll make everything peachy. Time and time again, though, studies have shown that our never-ending quest for happiness is quite often the very thing that screws us up.

Trying to find happiness is a futile effort, likely to exacerbate the “crisis” you’re having. Stop the search for happiness and start taking action steps toward creating the life that you want. When you do, you won’t need to find happiness. Eventually, happiness will find you.

MEDITATE

What I used to dismiss as new age nonsense has positively changed my life in more ways than I thought possible. Meditation has been proven to reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression, improve focus and concentration, increase self-awareness, and promote better physical health. It is a great way to help ease the midlife crisis in men.

And, for me, it’s the only activity that effectively tames my “monkey mind,” or what neuroscientists have recently named the default mode network (DMN).

Your DMN is most active when you aren’t focused on anything in particular, and your mind is wandering from thought to thought. At best, these thoughts can be inspired and entertaining. But when you’re in the throes of a personal crisis, these thoughts can be morbid and destructive.

Meditation has a quieting effect and significantly decreases activity in the DMN. And when the mind does start to wander, those who regularly meditate are much better at snapping out of it.

DEVELOP AND ABUNDANCE MINDSET

Of all the strategies I use to mitigate my depression and anxiety, abundance thinking was the most difficult for me to adopt. It’s also been the most beneficial. It required me to change some of my core beliefs.

For years, I operated from a scarcity mindset, I was angry that all the world’s goodies seemed to go to everyone else. I wondered why those around me were getting recognized, getting rich, getting a nice partner, and I wasn’t.

Maybe, I thought, there’s just not enough to go around. Of course, this kind of thinking isn’t just debilitating; it’s downright inaccurate.

The world, in fact, is a place of abundance with limitless opportunities. Remind yourself of this every day, regardless of your age. Open yourself up to all that the world has to offer.

As Dr. Wayne Dyer wrote in his book, Real Magic: Creating Miracles in Everyday Life, “Try to image a state of unlimited possibilities as being possible for you.”

PRACTICE GRATITUDE

Before you go to bed at night, think of a handful things for which you are grateful. Better yet, write them down. These can be common, everyday occurrences like seeing a beautiful sunset, learning something new, or hearing your favorite song on the radio.

As Dr. Robert Emmons, a professor at UC Davis and the world’s leading scientific expert on gratitude, once wrote, “Gratitude is first and foremost, a way of seeing that alters our gaze.”

PURSUE YOUR PASSIONS

I can’t help but feel a tinge of regret when I think of the years during which I never pursued my passions. Certainly, if you’re having a midlife crisis, it might seem hard to feel passionate about anything. But you can reinvigorate your spirit with a remarkably simple activity.

Think about what you love doing or what you loved doing when you were a kid. Think about how you might spend your time if you had the financial abundance to do anything. Think about those you admire, those whose careers you wish you had. Think about what makes the hours fly by like seconds.

Whatever your passions are, pursue them wholeheartedly. As Hunter S. Thompson once said, “Anything that gets your blood racing is probably worth doing.”

If you’re not sure what your passion is, that’s okay.

Research also shows that simply trying new things can increase dopamine levels in the brain, contributing to sustained levels of contentment. So, get out of the house and try new things. Eventually, you’ll find one that lights you up inside.

EXERCISE

Exercise is by far the most widely recommended way to stave off negative feelings and gain perspective.

And, you don’t even have to go to the gym.

You can do yoga, play badminton, or jump on a trampoline. You can go swimming or dancing or hiking or biking. You can hula hoop with your kids or practice Kung Fu.

You can clean your garage or pull weeds in your garden. Or you can simply take a brisk walk around the neighborhood. Just do something physical and you only need to do it for 20 minutes.

Oh, and consider changing your diet. Eating fried, processed, and sugary garbage does nobody good.

SET GOALS

Just hearing the word “goals” used to depress me. I couldn’t help but think of corporate plodders, wielding dry-erase pens, and scribbling inconsequential to-dos on an office whiteboard.

But the fact is, setting goals has become vital to my well-being.

Make a list of everything you’d like to accomplish in the next year, in the next five years, and the next ten years. Talk to a coach or someone you love about your goals and work out a plan to achieve them.

STAY OFF SOCIAL MEDIA

I can’t think of anything worse for a fragile human psyche than social media. It’s no secret that using social media can lead to depression, anxiety, envy, feelings of hopelessness and worthlessness, and all kinds of other problems.

It’s also a colossal waste of time. Imagine what you could accomplish in your own life during the hours you spend scrolling through the highlight reels from the lives of others.

THINK OF YOUR LIFE AS A PARTY

The fact that you’re alive isn’t just a cause for celebration; it’s a miracle – so improbable that if you try to comprehend it, your mind will almost certainly turn to mush.

Dr. Ali Binazir, a wicked smart Harvard grad and the author of The Tao of Dating: The Smart Woman’s Guide to Being Absolutely Irresistible, actually crunched the numbers, demonstrating that the probability of your dad meeting your mom was one in 20,000, the probability of your dad dating your mom was one in 2,000, and the probability of the right sperm meeting the right egg was one in 400 quadrillion.

And that’s just the beginning.

Your grandparents, great grandparents, and everyone before them – going back millions of years to the first Homo sapiens – had to meet, fuck, and have children. In the end, explains Binazir, the probability of you being born was one in 10, followed by 2,685,000 zeroes.

Tragically, so many of us never truly appreciate what it means to be alive. We succumb to our fears, give up on our dreams, and tolerate the intolerable. We get into bad jobs, bad relationships, and bad situations, allowing others to treat us poorly. We do this for years, decades, or a lifetime. Then, we die.

Think of your life as a party and remember that life is meant to be enjoyed, not endured.

Can You Prevent a Midlife Crisis?

I don’t think I need to explain that it’s impossible to prevent something that’s already happening. But if you see another life crisis in your near future, you can nip it in the bud by doing the things listed above. And, you can start doing them today.

Additionally, you can stop making excuses that stand in the way of your progress.

Not sure if you’re making excuses? They aren’t hard to recognize.

Most of yours probably start with the words “I don’t.”

I don’t have the time.

I don’t have the money.

I don’t know how.

I don’t think it’ll work.

I don’t think I’m ready.

These are excuses. All of them.

As humans, we consistently make excuses and talk ourselves out of changing our lives for the better. And we do so out of fear.

Fear is what traps you inside your comfort zone and whenever you do something outside your comfort zone, you’re hurling yourself into the unknown. And once you’re there, you might come face to face with failure, rejection, stress, and embarrassment.

You might have to take on new responsibilities. You might slip and fall and break something of value and look like a failure. Or you might do something remarkable.

There’s really no way of knowing. That’s why it’s called the unknown. And yes, the unknown can be a scary place.

But why are we so scared of the unknown?

If we are to believe all of those horribly platitudinous quotes about comfort zones (Great things never came from comfort zones!), shouldn’t we be more inclined to explore new ground?

For most of us, the answer is one big, pathetic NO.

Fear of the unknown is an unavoidable part of the human condition. As human beings, we have an inherent, psychological need for certainty – for comfort – because it makes us feel like we’re in control. And yet, we also have the need for uncertainty – for variety – because it reminds us that we’re alive.

But as Tony Robbins often points out, “Most people value certainty a lot more, and that’s why their lives are so boring.”

To stop making excuses, acknowledge that you’re making them in the first place. Once you do, you’ll feel a lot better. You’ll only live your best life once you step out.

Of course, there’s still a hurdle to overcome. You still have to do something. You still have to take action. And taking action, as we know, can be scary.

So think about the consequences of inaction.

What’ll happen if you do nothing?

It should come as no surprise that if you do nothing, nothing will happen. And you’ll stay right where you are: stuck in a rut while you yearn for something more.

How a Midlife Crisis can be an Opportunity

No matter what age you are, every day provides a new opportunity to do something new:

Sam Walton founded Wal-Mart when he was 44.

Ray Kroc bought the first McDonald’s just after his 50th birthday.

Rodney Dangerfield was 46 when he got his big break on the Ed Sullivan Show.

Harland Sanders was dead broke at 65. Then, he sold the first Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise.

Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species at age 50.

We can’t stop the inevitable. I hate to break it to you, but we’re all going to die. The question is: what are you going to do while you’re alive?

Life is precious. If you believe you’re having a midlife crisis, take a minute to examine what’s really going on.

Perhaps it’s not really a crisis at all. In fact, there’s a good chance it’s the perfect time to create the life you’ve always wanted. No excuses.

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