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‘It has always been hard for me to ask for help’

K., age 50, says he is “second-guessing my worth in my relationships and job,” even though he has achieved his goals and more:

I’ve done everything that I set out to do from becoming a Creative Director for a advertising agency and winning awards. I designed my own home and cottage. Remarried to a beautiful woman who is kind and caring. There isn’t anything that I haven’t done that I set my mind too. As with other people you’ve interviewed I should feel fortunate and grateful. Yes grateful, but I can’t.

I’ve dealt with a slight depression since my thirties and chalked up all of these feelings through the years to just that, depression. But you’ve given me hope that I’m not alone in this world with my feelings. That there is something causing my dissatisfaction and I’m not going insane. In other words I’m not BROKEN.

As I stated earlier, I’m lucky to have a great wife that listens to me, but I know it’s wearing on her and I don’t have a lot of resources where I live. It has always been hard for me to ask for any kind of help as it has always been a form of weakness in my up bringing. But I am going to reach out to a complete stranger, you. Are there exercises that you know of that can help me to train my mind to be more grateful and not so self-judging of myself or afraid of change? Anything that you would suggest would greatly be appreciated.

What K describe sounds like me in my forties, perhaps somewhat more severe. Chapter 8 of the book has recommendations, including the things I wish I had known and done.

K hints at the shame that makes it so hard for high-achievers to be open even with loved ones about midlife discontent. He seems to be talking to his wife, a good start (I didn’t really talk to anyone). Isolation is the enemy here.

He also alludes to training his mind, an insightful concept. For those experiencing intrusive thoughts of worthlessness and self-recrimination, as I did, cognitive therapy can be valuable, because it can train us to interrupt the self-critical monologue and take back some control over the situation. Most modern therapists know the techniques.

That is one of several reasons to consider counseling. Another is that a good counselor will have seen midlife malaise before and can distinguish it from classic chronic depression. K’s history of “slight depression” suggests he may have elements of both. Trying to sort out these things by ourselves is, for most of us, just too darn difficult. This is why God made professionals.

And don’t underestimate the possibilities of coaching, which can be done via Skype if resources are thin locally. Coaches are trained to help us align our lives with our values, a forward-looking, goal-oriented approach that can be well suited to a go-getter.

Oh, and remember: though everyone’s individual mileage will vary, odds are that for K, at age 50, time is on his side.

‘Where does individual agency fit in?’

David C. asks:

Nice piece and tracks with experience: rough 40s and now happier in early 50s. But here’s the wrinkle: I’m happier (I think) because I tackled some major issues in my life. I changed careers, changed relationships, and moved to a different city. Your article suggests we’re often unhappy in mid life for no good reason. But I know quite a few people who get stuck and need to get unstuck to be happier. I was one of them. Waiting to age into greater happiness wouldn’t have worked. I needed to take action. Where does individual agency fit in with your analysis?

There’s an old witticism: just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you. Relatedly: just because you’re at the bottom of the happiness curve doesn’t mean you don’t need change in your life.

This is one of the hardest perplexities of the curve. Age can reduce midlife contentment, but so can other things. And more than one thing is always going on. Your contentment will depend on your emotional setpoint (i.e., your personality), your life circumstances (job, marriage, health, kids), the choices you make (lifestyle, romance, hobbies), and age.

So, if you are feeling restless or bored at work, is that midlife playing its tricks, or do you really need change? Here’s the important but disappointing answer: could be one or the other or a combination, and there is no bright-line, prefabricated way to tell. Most of us are just not very good at attributing the causes of our discontentment, and even in principle sorting and separating them is difficult.

That may be an unsatisfying answer in principle, but it is an important cautionary note in practice. The advice it leads to is not: never make a change. It is: proceed with caution. Try to work on the variables sequentially rather than throwing all the cards into the air. Consult with family, friends, and trusted advisers in making decisions. Have a plan B, and a plan C. Seek change that stems logically from your life choices and builds upon them.

Change is not your enemy at midlife. But impulsiveness often is. If managed well, midlife restlessness can be a doorway to renewal. If managed poorly, it can be a doorway to, well, midlife crisis.

(More on this in Chapter 8 of the book.)