Friday, September 7, 2007

Men and the mid-life crisis

This is the text of my That's Men for You column in The Irish Times on Tuesday, 4th September, 2007:

There have been arguments for a long time as to whether such a thing as a mid-life crisis exists for men. The latest research from the UK suggests that it does.

The research was done for Britain’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. Why Britain’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is interested in such matters I have absolutely no idea.

What they found, though, was a pattern: men’s levels of happiness tend to dip in their mid-thirties and forties and then to rise again when they get older. The fact that levels of happiness rise again in later life means that there is actually light at the end of the tunnel. Handling a mid-life crisis is a matter of getting through the tunnel, though sometimes it can be pretty dark in there.

There can be many reasons for this fall in happiness in middle age. Perhaps you have failed to realise your ambition of making your first million by the time you’re thirty. Perhaps you are in the job you always wanted to be in but it no longer interests you. Perhaps you are trying to cope with so many demands – work, mortgage, family – that you feel your life is somewhat out of your control. The research also shows that people’s sense of being able to influence their own lives actually falls from their mid-twenties until their mid-fifties when it rises again.

Sometimes the crisis seems to hit without any clear explanation. Everything in the garden is rosy but the man feels lost and cut adrift.

Sometimes what’s going on is as profound as the realisation that you are actually going to die one day. It can take quite a long time for this realisation to hit with its full impact and when it does, it produces a crisis for the individual. That crisis generally ends with a determination to get on with the things that you need to get on with and to make the best of the rest of your life. But while you’re in the middle of the crisis it’s an unpleasant one.

Some men in the middle of a mid-life crisis feel that the answer is a complete change – a change of partner, a change of job or a change of country. Sometimes it is and sometimes it isn’t. You need to be careful that your expectations from change are not totally unrealistic. You also need to consider who is going to get hurt along the way.

In the last century, a psychologist called Erik Erikson proposed that we go through eight psychological stages with conflicting possibilities built into each. In young adulthood, for example, we may move towards intimacy as in the early years of marriage and parenting or we may become isolated.

In middle age, he suggests, we may go outwards towards a concern with the sort of society we are living in, and towards making the world better for ourselves, others and future generations. Alternatively we may fall into self-absorption, interested mainly in ourselves alone and in what we can get out of life, which means out of other people. But the world does not, and will not even if you live to the end of time, revolve around you – therefore self-absorption can be a recipe for depression, though it can also be a recipe for ruthlessness and selfishness.

So middle age presents a choice: take a creative, generous, outward-looking attitude or become wrapped up in yourself. If you’re feeling gloomy about middle age, consider those choices. And you can console yourself by remembering that research which suggests that as we get older we tend to get happier. While satisfaction with one’s health declines from about the mid-twenties onwards and keeps on declining, even that doesn’t seem to dent the higher satisfaction levels of older people.

So handle the mid-life slump well and it doesn’t have to be a slump at all. And remember this: we guys don’t have to go through the menopause – now there’s something to feel happy about.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I am having a crisis in my own life, and I'm only now in my early 30's.

It seems very stinky to have to go into great detail about all I've been through, and how many years of my life have been incompleted plans, etc.

I realize that I was trying to get a college degree that the job market for is no longer there today, and I finally realize that I should move on from thinking I am ever going to have a life as an architect.

I have almost a bachelor's degree and I am preparing to get back into college after I went through some very difficult to take experiences, which forever changed my life and the way I see myself, etc.

However, here's my question for you: for those of us out there who truly do have changes to make, how do we begin to make them? I now know what I don't want to do, but I'm not sure what it is that I do want to do.

The possibilities are endless but I can't seem to pick one.

Your thoughts are welcomed..