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A Philosophical Guide

By Kieran Setiya
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Midlife by Kieran Setiya

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.

Key idea 1 of 7

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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