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  • Writer's pictureAnna K. Schaffner

Is This It? 4 Key Reasons for Mid-Life Languishing

... and how we can overcome it

Anna Katharina Schaffner | PSYCHOLOGY TODAY

Originally published on 8 March 2023 on Psychology Today/The Art of Self-Improvement

It is a truth universally acknowledged that happiness is a U-shaped curve. Starting at an optimistic, youthful high, it begins to decline in our twenties and hits rock bottom in midlife. In our fifties, it gently climbs upwards again, reaching similar heights at the beginning and end of our lives. The movement of the curve has generally been interpreted as reflecting a transition from idealism to realism to acceptance.

The stage-of-life-related fluctuation of our happiness levels has not just been measured by numerous psychologists, but also been observed by writers and philosophers. Dante famously opens The Divine Comedy with the lines ‘Midway through life’s journey, I found myself alone and lost in a dark forest’. Dante’s main character is lost both in a literal and a metaphorical sense. What is more, he is also grappling with the consequences of loss at numerous levels: He has lost Beatrice, the love of his life, as well as his faith, his passion, his care for others and his energy. The dark woods in which he finds himself are the thorny undergrowth of his psyche.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s polymathic Faust figure is another deeply dissatisfied mid-lifer. At the beginning of Goethe’s tragedy, the outwardly successful and acclaimed German scholar has studied and mastered everything there is to study. But all the knowledge he amassed yields him no insights, no wisdom and no pleasure. In fact, Faust’s life is sterile and lacking in meaning. He is so disillusioned and exhausted that he is ready to commit suicide. Instead, however, he makes a deal with the devil, who promises him wealth, women, forbidden knowledge, wild hedonic pleasures, and power. Crucially, though, none of these things end up curing Faust’s meaning crisis, either.

The mid-life crisis is not a cliché. For many of us, it is a deeply felt, painful reality. Many of my coaching clients grapple with an acute sense of loss of meaning and an absence of joy and passion in their forties. This affects both men and women. The mid-life crisis has long ceased to be the terrain of men only. And neither do most people react to it by buying shiny fast cars and too-youthful clothes and ditching their partners for younger models.

The mid-life slump of my clients takes a more existential, searching, often philosophical form. Like Dante, they wonder: How did I even get here? And where are all the things I lost on the way? Like Faust, they ask: Is this it? What lies beyond the boundaries of what I know already? They question their choices, seek to reconnect with what really used to matter to them, and wish to explore what fulfilment may look and feel like. A surprisingly large number of them wonder whether they are in the right job. Quite a few conclude that they aren’t.

Why is it that so many of us embark on this deeper meaning quest in mid-life? Our low life-satisfaction in our forties seems both paradoxical and counterintuitive. In that period, many of us tend actually to have achieved most of our goals: statistically speaking, we tend to have finished our professional training and secured good jobs and incomes, we tend to own property, be married or in stable partnerships, and often have children. Many of us have reached positions in our professional lives that we desperately wanted to reach in our younger years.

So what is going on? Why does everything we have strived for suddenly taste of ashes when we hit our forties? I think mid-life languishing has 4 main causes. All are related to getting what we want.

1. The reality of getting what we want can be disappointing. First and foremost, getting what we want is simply not always as great as we imagine it. In our forties, we are confronted with the experiential reality of what the fulfilment of many of our longer-term aims actually feels like. And it feels, well, just not as amazing as we hoped it would. Achieving our external aims, such as being successful in our careers, owning property, or having children, does not deliver the bouts of joy and deep satisfaction we thought it would. Parenting is beautiful and sacred and intrinsically meaningful at a deeper level, but it is also hard work, exhausting and often challenging on a day-to-day basis. Long-term partnerships, too, can at times feel like they are more work than joy. When sexual passion becomes less central or fizzles out completely, we may have to contend with other, less shiny and potentially more irritating things.

2. What we want may not be what we need. Secondly, we may find that what we want is not what we need. Wealth, status and power can feel profoundly empty. They seldom manage to fill any of our deeper needs – as Faust finds out the hard way. What is more, they cannot compensate for childhood sufferings. They do not make us feel loved or connected or genuinely appreciated. They cannot ever make us feel truly whole.

3. We may have stopped learning new things. Thirdly, in mid-life we often become stuck in our routines and stay in our comfort zones. We may lack learning, excitement, adventure, challenge, and variety both in our professional and our private lives. But learning is a basic human need. When we cannot learn we stop growing and developing. Similarly, we also need new experiences and variety to feel stretched and alive.

4. We may neglect connection. Fourthly, I was really struck by one of the key results of the Harvard Study of Adult Development. Started in 1938, it is the longest study on happiness ever conducted. It followed a group of men, both from privileged and underprivileged backgrounds, through every stage of their lives, from youth to old age, to explore what factors allow people to flourish in life.

The key finding of the researchers was that what truly makes people thrive across their live spans is connections. The quality and depth of our relationships not just predicts our overall mental well-being, but also impacts significantly on our physical health and even our success in the workplace. The researchers also offered an explanation for why our happiness declines so dramatically in mid-life: In our forties, we tend to neglect our relationships. Because our professional lives have become more demanding, we spend a large amount of our time at work. We may also be very entangled with the complexities of parenting. As a result, many of us spend less time connecting with others. We may lose touch with old friends and feel too busy or too exhausted to make new ones.

But here is the good news: We can turn our mid-life languishing into truly empowering experiences. Above all, they are opportunities to ask deeper questions about our life’s purpose and about what genuine fulfilment may mean and look like for us. A languishing crisis can help us reconnect more strongly with what truly matters. It can motivate us to get out of our default mode and design our lives more consciously. It can be a powerful catalyst for taking stock and making courageous, deliberate choices to live value-led lives. It might mean changing some external things, or maybe it means changing our attitudes toward what we already have.

Finally, remember Dante, lost all alone in the woods? He did not find his way out on his own. He had Virgil, a wise guide who showed him how to get on the right path again and who let him into the realm of the divine. Find your own Virgil. It can be a friend, a mentor or a coach. Coaching is a powerful tool for helping you to reconnect with your deeper purpose. It can help you climb out of the lower regions of the happiness curve faster, stronger and with renewed clarity of vision.

Image: Ante Hamersmit @Unsplash

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