Midlife is the most misunderstood stage of life. This is no surprise as those of us currently in midlife, the ages between 45-60, are only the 3rd or 4th generation to have to contend with a life expectancy that goes beyond these years. In 1921 the life expectancy at birth in Canada for women was around 57years. By 2011 the had increased to just over 80 years. Now, when we reach 50 we look ahead and see another 25-30 years of living to do with no social milestones to achieve, and we are left wondering “what’s next?”.
Midlife is a normal stage of human development. Studies show that this period tends to be associated with feelings of dissatisfaction and unhappiness. In fact, it is the lowest point on what science has termed The Human Happiness Curve. This tendency is universal.
The unhappiness we experience in relation to midlife is different from the unhappiness we may feel as we experience major transitions such as children leaving home, long-term relationships coming to an end, the death of friends and loved ones. This kind of unhappiness is associated with specific, concrete events. The challenge of midlife unhappiness is that we cannot end the sentence “I am unhappy because…”.
The Midlife Paradox is this: while there is a general tendency to feel unhappy at midlife, the greater our success up to that point, the stronger the feelings of unhappiness we may experience.
In his book “The Happiness Curve: Why Life Gets Better After 50”, Jonathan Rauch lays out the science behind this conclusion. The simple explanation is this: we humans tend to overestimate the happiness we will feel as we achieve our life’s milestones and our goals. The result is that we feel a sense of disappointment as we achieve those milestones and those goals even as we may celebrate our successes. The greater the gap between expectation and reality, the greater the disappointment. This disappointment is cumulative. By the time we reach midlife, disappointment adds on to disappointment. Children leaving home, relationships ending, career stagnation are just a few.
I have always attributed my lack of fulfillment in my chosen career of law enforcement to a misalignment between my life purpose and the mandate of police officers. To a great extent, I know that is true but, I now see that there was another factor at work. I entered law enforcement late – 38 years of age and I started feeling dissatisfied approximately 7 years into my career. That means I started having these feelings in my mid forty’s, just when I hit the bottom of the Happiness Curve. I now suspect that there was more going on for me than I realized.
We need to stop mocking or shaming those of us who struggle in midlife. It is time we normalize the dissatisfaction and anxiety some of us feel. For those who do struggle, it is time to learn some simple strategies to get us through this time of turmoil feeling sane, whole and understood.
There are 3 things we can do to ease the transition into the second half of adulthood:
- Normalize the feelings of dissatisfaction we may be experiencing. This means accepting that what we are experiencing is a normal part of human development. Midlife unhappiness is simply a cue that we need to shake up our status quo and develop a plan for the second half of midlife. As adolescents we did this for the first half, now we need to do it for the second half
- Seek out people who understand what we are experiencing so we can talk out our feelings in a safe and supportive environment. Doing this alone is simply too difficult and yet it is hard to express unhappiness and dissatisfaction when our life is comfortable and we lack for nothing. For the most part, the response we get when we do so is shame and mockery.
- See midlife for the great gift it is: absent any socially set milestones, we are free to plan a life that we WANT and not a life that others say we should have! Studies show happiness after 50 is associated with living a life of purpose that goes beyond our own personal needs. Unlike the first half of adulthood where the focus is on competition and “reaching the top”, this purpose uses our skills, knowledge and, wisdom to help those who are coming up behind us; to leave a legacy of value.
Clarifying our life purpose is a challenge at any age. For some, clarifying it for life after 50 is harder yet. If you struggle with clarifying your purpose, especially if you are struggling in midlife, I can help!
Krys helps women 40+ clarify their purpose so they can live a life that is full and rewarding and so that they can leave a legacy of value. To connect with Krys you can email her at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 604-852-2414 for a complimentary 30 mins consultation