Here’s a letter from a man I’ll call T that provides a useful reminder that midlife is a treacherous time for many people precisely because it is not an identifiable crisis. T’s situation sounds like mine at age 42: he has a good life, he has ticked all his boxes, yet he itches for something new, someplace different, a change—maybe a nonprofit, or environmental work, or even being a park ranger.
Thank you for writing The Happiness Curve. I have read many articles about the midlife experience, but your book is the most helpful yet. I am somewhat typical to the others in your study. Now 42, I have taken a circuitous path to owning my own firm, with plenty of free time and money. Great kids and a wonderful wife. And I want to take them with me to anywhere other than where I live almost daily. I am sometimes obsessed with changing my current location to one more picturesque, as I believe it would make our lives even that much better.
I also struggle with wanting something new in my career, though the one I have checks all of the boxes for me professionally and personally, and probably for any sane person. Non profit, environmental, and I have even considered taking massive pay cuts to be a park ranger!
As you wrote, one of the most helpful things for such a trough is to simply know others are going through it.
What’s notable about his message: he is not depressed, unhappy, or in crisis. He is having a midlife uncrisis. One of the most important takeaways of my research on midlife (un)happiness is that the whole “crisis” meme is wrong for many people, perhaps most. What people like T are experiencing is a transition: in their values, in their expectations, and even in their brains. They have ticked the boxes of their youthful ambitions and want something different, but they don’t yet know what that is. It’s a perfectly normal, healthy state: uncomfortable, but with a sizable payoff. If, that is, T can stay calm, avoid impulsive mistakes, and begin work planning the transition to the more other-directed goals that are starting to exert their pull on him.
I doubt he will take a massive pay cut and move his family to a park-ranger station. But I won’t be surprised to see him at a nonprofit or environmental group in his fifties. I sometimes refer to The Happiness Curve as my midlife crisis book. But of course it’s really the opposite: how the new science of happiness can help us get through midlife transition without a crisis. More than likely, T will make it.