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Midlife summary

Kieran Setiya

A Philosophical Guide

4.4 (288 ratings)
19 mins

Brief summary

Midlife by Kieran Setiya is a philosophical exploration of the challenges and opportunities that come with reaching middle age. Setiya offers insights and practical advice on how to embrace this stage of life and find new sources of meaning and fulfillment.

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    Midlife
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    The idea of middle age as a time of crisis is relatively new – but there are reasons to believe it’s accurate.

    It was 1965, and Elliot Jaques, an influential social scientist and psychoanalyst, had noticed an interesting trend. While studying the lives of famous figures and talking with his patients, Jaques had found that middle age often proved to be a transformative period in their lives.

    Take the great Italian poet Dante, for example. To use his own metaphor, Dante found himself “lost in a dark woods” at age 35 – right before he began writing the Divine Comedy. Michelangelo, to name another Italian genius, actually painted next to nothing between the ages of 40 and 55. 

    Struck by the importance of middle age for great artists and ordinary people alike, Jaques wrote a groundbreaking essay that coined an intriguing term. The essay’s title was “Death and the Mid-Life Crisis” – and with its publication, the term “midlife crisis” suddenly began to spread. 

    The key message here is: The idea of middle age as a time of crisis is relatively new – but there are reasons to believe it’s accurate.

    By now, the characteristics of a midlife crisis are familiar to most of us. And although not everyone ends up buying a motorcycle, changing careers, or getting a divorce, many people are struck by a newfound sense of dissatisfaction around the age of 40.

    Why? Well, when we reach middle age, we often have to acknowledge some hard truths. For the first time in our lives, we may have to admit that many of our childhood and adolescent dreams are never going to come true. 

    Instead, we have to make do with our lives as they actually are. And for many of us, this means learning that disappointment and boredom are often pretty hard to avoid.

    But beyond these gentle letdowns looms something more serious – it’s at this age that many people first really grasp their own mortality. Even when we’re young, we know that death is inevitable, of course. But middle age, with its backaches, wrinkles, and health scares, can make our sense of mortality feel a lot more concrete and urgent.

    And it’s not just a hunch that midlife can leave us feeling dissatisfied – a robust body of scholarly work actually bears out this observation. In 2008, two economists named David Blanchflower and Andrew Oswald conducted a study of lifetime well-being; they found that our levels of happiness tend to form a U-shape over the course of our lives. That is, we start out fairly happy, grow somewhat dissatisfied in middle age, and then begin to cheer up again in our older years. 

    Luckily, this process isn’t inevitable – and there are a number of philosophical insights that can make midlife easier to bear.

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    What is Midlife about?

    Midlife (2017) is a philosophical guide to navigating the troubles that middle age can present. Drawing on thinkers from ancient Rome to nineteenth-century England, it offers gentle solace in the face of midlife’s woes.

    Midlife Review

    Midlife (2017) by Kieran Setiya is a fascinating exploration of the midlife crisis and how to navigate this tumultuous phase of life. Here's why this book is worth reading:

    • It offers insightful reflections on the common challenges and dilemmas faced during midlife, helping readers understand and cope with this transitional period.
    • With its philosophical approach, the book encourages self-reflection and introspection, providing readers with a deeper understanding of themselves and their values.
    • Through anecdotes and personal experiences, Setiya brings the content to life, making it relatable and engaging, ensuring that the book is definitely not boring.

    Best quote from Midlife

    Remind yourself that the consequences were uncertain and that a second chance could turn out better or worse.

    —Kieran Setiya
    example alt text

    Who should read Midlife?

    • Middle-aged people on the cusp of a midlife crisis
    • Those with relatives or friends past their mid-thirties
    • Anyone interested in applying philosophy to life

    About the Author

    Kieran Setiya is a professor of philosophy at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Specializing in ethics, the philosophy of mind, and epistemology, he has also written extensively on public philosophy. He is the author of Knowing Right from Wrong, Practical Knowledge, and Reasons Without Rationalism.

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    Midlife FAQs 

    What is the main message of Midlife?

    Midlife explores the challenges and opportunities of navigating midlife and finding fulfillment in the midst of change.

    How long does it take to read Midlife?

    The reading time for Midlife varies, but it typically takes several hours. The Blinkist summary can be read in just 15 minutes.

    Is Midlife a good book? Is it worth reading?

    Midlife is a thought-provoking book that offers valuable insights and guidance for anyone going through or approaching midlife.

    Who is the author of Midlife?

    Kieran Setiya is the author of Midlife.

    What to read after Midlife?

    If you're wondering what to read next after Midlife, here are some recommendations we suggest:
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