One of the most intriguing puzzles of lifespan developmental psychology is the myth of a midlife crisis, a mental health crisis occurring in the midlife years. In 1965, Elliot Jacques proposed the midlife crisis as a normative crisis in early middle adulthood on the basis of a psychoanalytic approach to an awareness of death surfacing in early midlife (the mid-thirties). Although the notion of a midlife crisis attracted much acclaim in both the scientific and public debate, it has continually failed to receive empirical support. Empirical investigations have shown the existence of midlife developmental patterns of continuous development, maintained well-being, and adaptivity and resilience throughout midlife; and they have not uncovered a midlife mental health crisis as a universal, or even a common developmental, experience.
Adaptation to growth potential and resilience in managing losses are two major components of developmental regulation. Midlife, more than any other period of the life span, requires the conjoint mastery of both these components of regulating one's own development. It is during midlife that adults can expect a radical increase in loss-related changes, including crossing some developmental deadlines that require disengagement from an important life goal, such as having children. At the same time, several domains of life and functioning (e.g., professional expertise, social skills) come into their prime in midlife.
The regulatory challenge of juggling both gains and losses does not overwhelm most midlife adults, however. Instead, these challenges are met with a rich and elaborate array of resources that most adults command at this point in life. Midlifers typically are at the peak of their vocational careers, earning power, social status, and social influence. Moreover, and maybe even more importantly, midlife adults have accumulated knowledge about adult development and life courses and have experience with mastering challenges, overcoming losses, and regulating emotional responses. In addition, many midlife adults hold optimistic beliefs about their own self efficacy, occupy multiple social roles that can balance losses, and enjoy supportive social networks. Finally, midlife adults can self-regulate their goal engagement and goal disengagement based on their knowledge and anticipation of final deadlines for achieving certain goals (e.g., child-bearing, career promotion). This way they can avoid experiencing disappointment and despair when time runs out for achieving long-cherished life goals.
In spite of the evidence contradicting it, the notion of a midlife crisis has survived as a public myth about development during the fourth and fifth decades of life. This survival of the midlife crisis myth is an intriguing phenomenon—which calls for scientific explanation. It seems likely that the myth itself fulfills an adaptive function, which lends credibility and resilience to it. In a cross-sectional study of adults from early adulthood to old age (Heckhausen and Brim, 1997), perceptions of self and "most others my age" reflected a view that most others are burdened with problems, whereas each individual considers himself or herself to be the favorable exception. This tendency was expressed by adults at all ages, and was particularly pronounced for domains of functioning for which the respective adult experienced a threat (e.g., health, career, stagnation, conflicts with one's children). It thus appears that social downgrading (underestimating others' qualities) based on negative age-related stereotypes (e.g., the elderly, the midlife crisis) is a compensatory interpretation used by adults who experience loss or threat. Such age-related stereotypes are not only present with regard to old age but also exist for midlife. The myth of the midlife crisis may serve this function by organizing a social stereotype about midlife that allows social downgrading of one's age peers and, thereby, relative self-enhancement. In this way, the myth of the midlife crisis is an adaptive stereotype, just as negative stereotypes about aging are.
Another adaptive implication of the midlife crisis myth is the fact that it renders certain problems predictable, such as the increased tendency for feelings of regret, disappointment, and lack of purpose and meaning, which are probably more likely to be experienced at midlife because of the growing salience of finite lifespan. Thus, based on expectations implied in the notion of a midlife crisis, individuals might move into midlife anticipating and prepared to disengage from certain goals that have become obsolete.
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