What is a midlife crisis? The clichéd images are of a man in his 40s buying a red sports car and pursuing younger women, but a recent study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences calls into question these clichés.
An international team of researchers studied more than 500 captive apes around the world and found that chimpanzees and orangutans also experience a significant dip in happiness around their own midlife, measured in marked depression and changes in social interactions, distinct from the individual ape’s emotions and behaviors before and after this time of life, measured using standard surveys by those who know the animals well.
Before this study, many of us already knew that a midlife crisis was not a distinctly male phenomenon, that women experience it too, even if women and men act on their changing emotions and perspectives in different ways. But now, seeing the same U-shaped curve in happiness from childhood to elderhood, with the dip occurring at midlife, even in our ape cousins, supports the possibility that the crisis is genetic and possibly adaptive in our evolution.
If so, what purpose does it serve? According to the researchers, the most plausible explanation is that the crisis occurs at a time when we are often at the height of our lives—with our children (if we have them) able to fend for themselves without us, our careers in their prime, and financial security at its strongest—a time when the anxiety and depression many of us feel is a reminder not to take all of this for granted.
Many of us know intellectually that these days, we are living longer and healthier lives than ever before, and that the prime of our lives is likely still in the years ahead, yet the primal fears remain and can easily overtake this knowledge. This research only confirms that our crisis is not a result of some external reality, that we can circumvent or lessen these feelings of crisis by being proactive in our lives. We can take this time to reimagine our futures, to go from good to great, and to plan the second half of our lives to surpass the first half beyond measure.
The midlife crisis may be a product of evolution that can lead us all toward taking the next evolutionary leap for all humans, and for the world.
Featured image by David and Becky.