Middle-Aged Ruminations About Mid-Life Crises, Self-Esteem, and Too Much Rumination

Generalizing from his own experience, Jonathan Rauch finds evidence of a U-shaped happiness curve in life:

I was about 50 when I discovered the U-curve and began poking through the growing research on it. What I wish I had known in my 40s (or, even better, in my late 30s) is that happiness may be affected by age, and the hard part in middle age, whether you call it a midlife crisis or something else, is for many people a transition to something much better—something, there is reason to hope, like wisdom. I wish someone had told me what I was able to tell my worried friend: nothing was wrong with him, and he wasn’t alone.

I’m skeptical.

My sense is that what’s really happening is that most people’s options begin to contract in middle age. They may feel more at ease because they have fewer hard decisions to make about which path in life to take, but the reality is fewer options and less opportunity. This is bad, not good. But a stark article that took my view might be a hard sell to the publications that buy Rauch’s work, and to his probably middle-aged readers.

I mentioned my thoughts to Lex and he responded:

I read this and it seemed almost useless.
Controlling for everything, you get this U-curve.
OK. People who are professionally successful, wealthy, happily married, have healthy successful children, are devoutly religious, all have their own patterns, but there is a U-curve buried in it all.
It was a longish article that ended up with: So what?
What it is really doing is telling Atlantic readers that life will get better, for no particular reason, it just will. It is a verbose equivalent of the cat hanging on a pole and the notation, Hang in there baby, Friday’s coming! Hang in there baby, in your 50s you will experience subjectively better emotional states for no reason at all.

I’m guessing that Atlantic readers are mostly middle-aged, educated, demographically like Rauch, and he is pandering to their personal concerns while citing a few vague studies. This is the modern way of self-help writing.

The old way might be to encourage people not to be self-absorbed. To this end one might suggest that readers spend more time with family, children, grandchildren, start businesses, pursue favorite activities, travel, be religious.

(How many children do Atlantic readers have on average?)

It’s easy to overdo introspective rumination. Lex’s response to this point was: “Yeah. And it does not accomplish anything. And it makes you feel worse.”

And that’s the point. Introspection may be helpful in some circumstances (in the morning, not on a work day, after a good night’s sleep, briefly, perhaps in the company of old friends), but not if indulged.

The problem with the self-esteem and you-go-girl crap that get fed to young people is not the positive feelings they engender. That part actually does some good. The problem is the discouragement of hard thought and reflection. A lot of young people, especially young women, have unrealistic ideas about life that they aren’t encouraged to question. It’s those unrealistic ideas, not the feel-good stuff, that are a problem.

The flip side of this is that a lot of older people, especially older men, have realistic ideas about how the world works but are full of destructive, negative feelings that are exacerbated by prolonged rumination.

Young women need to be taught habits of reflection and self-reliance, and old men need to be encouraged to be social and not to reflect too much. This is pretty much the opposite of how things are now.


(Note: Lex gave me permission to quote him but insisted that I pitch his book. Couldn’t hurt. It’s a great book and you would be much better off if you passed your time reading it rather than engaging in navel-gazing.)

13 thoughts on “Middle-Aged Ruminations About Mid-Life Crises, Self-Esteem, and Too Much Rumination”

  1. Male menopause. Just eat more red meat, lay off the bread and sugar, and once a month or so lift some heavy weights around for about a half hour.

  2. I read about half of it. I had my frustrations early in life. The college I wanted to go to, I couldn’t afford (No student loans then) so I took what was available. I floundered a bit. Took some courses that taught me quite a bit (Business and English Literature) but were not my career path. I finally settled on medicine and spent the next 15 years working on that with considerable success but my wife (married in college) resisted going where I wanted to go. She wanted a life with her girlfriends and was not much interested in my ambitions. Six years later we divorced and I remarried to a nurse who was enthusiastic about my ideas. Unfortunately, that marriage failed as we had children and mixed family problems, among others.

    Surgeons had very intense careers in those days, possibly less so today. No salary. You had to be available all the time. One of my older professors, who was in private practice, said, “The key to a successful surgical career, is availability, amiability and ability. In that order.” I worked 80 hour weeks and enjoyed it but none of my kids went into medicine. Some fathers had kids go into medicine but I suspect they had supportive wives. Mine complained constantly and was demoralized when practice was even busier than residency.

    Anyway, I am 77 and am back together with my second wife after 25 years. I am still working part time and teaching part time. I had a lot of fun with activities outside of medicine, like golf and sailing. I had to give up golf finally and sailing, as well. I had to give up surgery after a 14 hour back surgery 20 years ago. I still dream about surgery and miss it. Most of the dreams are about frustration, like trying to do open heart surgery on an airplane.

    After that, I spent a year at Dartmouth learning what I thought would be a second career studying medical quality, an avocation for a few years. Unfortunately, after considerable effort I found that NOBODY was interested in quality in medicine except doctors who had no power.

    Anyway, I figure I can work until 80 after having recovered from a stroke and heart attack 3 years ago. Don’t tell me about guys who are unhappy at 47.

  3. I didn’t feel old at 30 or 40, but somewhere between 45 and 50 I got old. I, and most of my male relatives, have hot flashes and other strange things usually related to menopause. Nobody seems to know what this is, but it’s nice to know others are going through the same strange symptoms.
    Mike – Surgeons have always seemed similar to fighter pilots and professionals in sports to me. There is little to no indecision in your actions and you perform better under stress than the average individual. It’s a strange gift and totally opposite of my inclinations. I have Steve Sax syndrome, and frequently throw the ball into the stands under duress.

  4. “you perform better under stress than the average individual”: I think there must be different kinds of stress. I was poor at coping with the stress imposed by a bad boss (human-induced stress, if you like) but good at dealing with stress imposed by physical circumstances. For example: those chaps seem to be drowning, what should I do? Or: we have an emergency on a petrochemical plant, what instructions should I give? Whom should I trust?

  5. Good point Dearieme.
    It’s the difference between reacting to chronic stress and acute stress. Short and sharp vs prolonged and protracted.
    The analogy and dichotomy exists all the over the place.

    The Internist vs the Surgeon
    The Fire Safety Officer vs the Fire Fighter
    Pop-COIN vs Spec Ops
    Virtue vs honor

    As far as the bad boss grinding you down or life gradually becoming boring, it’s important to remember that, no matter what you think or believe, chronic stress is always self imposed. No one can ever make you feel anything that you don’t want to.

  6. At fifty it is important to find a good team of cardiologists. Cardiologists have sub-specialties. You need one for stents, one for open heart stuff, and one for the whole heart. And of course you need a pair of neurologists to handle sleep and stroke. And you need a team of nurses to keep your heart healthy and body exercised. At seventy and ninety you have to replace all these people because they are getting old and young ones know new stuff. All this is covered by Medicare.

  7. Interesting things going on with comments on this thread. I posted one that did not appear. I tried to repost and got a “duplicate” message. Still hasn’t appeared.

  8. Sigh … to me, one of the indications that I am becoming ‘old’ is finding obituaries for people who were my supervisors/elders in various capacities: my first military NCOIC, the guy I did an opera commentary program with … hey, wait — they weren’t ‘old’ – they were there … and then they weren’t. Ave…

  9. On which I have to say that I’d rather be twenty-seven again

    With the knowledge and experience of a 60 yr old……….

  10. My suspicion that I am getting old is when I saw some of my medical school textbooks in the antiquarian section.

    Yeah, or seeing the hot cars of your teen years eligible for Antique license plates………

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