DAVID GREENE, HOST:
You know, when you hear the word midlife, the word crisis usually is not that far behind - buying the red sports car, maybe dumping your spouse for a younger or more appealing model. Though, I would never do that. I want to make that clear. Over the past three years, our former colleague Barbara Bradley Hagerty has been researching midlife. She writes about her findings in a new book called "Life Reimagined." And this week, we'll hear how to navigate midlife marriage, work or your forgetful brain. But today let's talk about cultural touchstone, the midlife crisis. And Barb joins me in the studio. Barb, great see you.
BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY: Great to see you, David.
GREENE: So midlife crisis - I mean, it's a real thing? Or is it a myth in some ways?
HAGERTY: Well, it's a myth. But there's a big qualification, which I want to talk about.
HAGERTY: You know, researchers say that very few people, like 10 percent of the population, suffer a stereotypical midlife crisis. The phrase came from this really obscure journal in 1965. And it described this kind of existential dread that comes when you realize that time is running out, and you may not be able to achieve your dreams. And then, of course, Gail Sheehy took that research, made it popular in the book "Passages." And suddenly we had a cultural phenomenon, right? Everyone's going to have a midlife crisis. But, you know, for the past 20 years, U.S. researchers have really looked and looked, and they simply can't find evidence of a common midlife crisis. Some people had this existential dread but not very many.
GREENE: So if they can't find evidence - I mean, I feel - like, I'm about to turn 40 years old. I feel something going on. Like, something is happening, right?
HAGERTY: You're absolutely right. Something is happening. And I think anyone who approaches their 40s or 50s or 60s, you know, feels that. Midlife crisis may be not very common. But midlife ennui, that feeling like, you know, things just aren't as exciting as they used to be...
GREENE: Midlife ennui doesn't have the same cache as midlife crisis, but OK (laughter).
HAGERTY: But it's a little more accurate...
HAGERTY: ...Because it seems like everyone has it. There is an economist named Andrew Oswald at the University of Warwick. And he's kind of surveyed people throughout their lives and in something like 75 countries. And he has found that everyone, rich people, poor people, educated, not - everyone seems to have a real dip in happiness in midlife. In the U.S., the unhappiest time, you'll be happy to know, is coming up in five years for you. It's 45.
GREENE: The unhappiest time - that's great news. That's fantastic. Thank you, Barb.
HAGERTY: Yes, the unhappiest time. That's what you have to look forward to. Sure. And Oswald calls this the U-curve of happiness, where people are really happy when they're younger. They kind of dip down into discontent in their 40s and 50s. And then they kind of swoop up. And they grow happier right through their 70s.
GREENE: It sounds like there's evidence of some emotional change going on around 40s and 50s. Well, why not call that a crisis?
HAGERTY: Well, what U.S. psychologists say is that the economists are actually asking the wrong question when they get this kind of midlife happiness dip. They are asking people about momentary happiness - you know, are you happy today? Are you stressed today? And let's face it. People in this stage of life, they're taking care of their kids. They're often taking care of their parents. They have mortgage payments and college tuition, really heavy responsibilities at work. So in this moment, are they giddy with happiness? No, they're not. But that isn't the existential question that is at the center of midlife crisis. The existential question is, is your life meaningful? Are you fulfilled? And what U.S. researchers find is that people say they are.
GREENE: OK. So if we make this distinction, it's like happiness might be dipping, but there might not be a real crisis. People still feel fulfilled. I mean, you must've talked to a lot of people for this book. What do they tell you?
HAGERTY: Yeah, yeah, you know what I did? We sent out - NPR sent out a callout on its Facebook page. And the question was, how is midlife treating you? And we got - we got, like, 700 responses in a couple of hours.
GREENE: Oh, cool.
HAGERTY: It was crazy.
GREENE: People were into this.
HAGERTY: Oh, they were really into it. And I've got to tell you, these were little tiny masterpieces of kind of ups and downs in what midlife looked like. And I asked a few of these people to read their emails into their smart phones and send them to me.
GREENE: Oh, cool, so we can listen to them.
HAGERTY: Yeah. And so I wanted to have us listen to a few of them. I received a few emails like this one. This is from Alessandra Alauntue (ph), who's in Las Vegas. And this does suggest quite a bit of age-related angst and fear of death. So let's listen to that.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
ALESSANDRA ALAUNTUE: (Reading) I used to be pretty and glamorous. Men flirted with me at the grocery store. I felt sexy. Now I feel sexless. My kneecaps are sagging. I'm not sure why that bothers me so much, but it does.
GREENE: So, Barb, I hear that, and I think midlife crisis perhaps.
HAGERTY: Yeah, I do too. But here's what's interesting, David. There were only a handful of emails like that. Most of the midlife crisis emails sounded like this one from Michael Ray (ph). He lost his job as an urban planner in Portland, Ore. in 2011. And after applying for a thousand jobs, he found himself driving a bus. Here's what he said.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
MICHAEL RAY: (Reading) I've done everything one is supposed to do - go to college, study hard, volunteer, give back, work hard, be sociable, have passion. But somehow, I have fallen into an abyss, which has no bottom and no top.
GREENE: OK. So this job is not satisfying him based on sort of the education levels that he attained and so forth - midlife crisis or no?
HAGERTY: Well, researchers would not say this is a midlife crisis. They would say that this is a crisis that occurred in midlife. These crises could actually happen at any time in life. And it's more of this kind of external setback about circumstances. It's not an internal angst about your dreams dying as you grow older. So, you know, since Michael Ray has written me this email, he actually has gotten a job he really, really likes.
GREENE: Oh, that's great. Did anyone say there was midlife bliss or general happiness?
HAGERTY: Yeah. Yes, in fact for probably every distressed email I received, probably 10 of them were really, really happy. Here's one from a woman named Dawn Stults (ph), who thought she would be an actress and ended up, you know, running lung cancer trials. Here's what she had to say about midlife.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
DAWN STULTS: (Reading) So far, midlife is the best life yet.
HAGERTY: Right. So here's what she did. She kind of revised her expectations. And she found meaning in the way her life turned out. And you saw this over and over again. A lot of people, you know, were pretty funny about the wrinkled skin or their fading memories or their creaking bones. And, you know...
GREENE: Can't wait for all of that. And it's coming soon.
HAGERTY: Oh, I know. It's really - it's great fun. I mean, experiencing it now. But, you know, midlife is not pretty, right? It's a really complicated time. What people do who are doing well in midlife is they accept the bad with the good. I want to play one more piece of tape. It's Victoria Galluchi (ph) in New Jersey. She barely makes ends meet with voiceover work and delivering babies as a midwife. Here's what she says.
VICTORIA GALLUCHI: (Reading) I'm a work in progress. I'm a beautiful mess. And even on the days when I hate my life, I love every lousy second of it.
GREENE: So, Barb, is that the take-home here, that you find a lot of people who are not experiencing something you would consider a crisis, who are going through sort of a period where they feel a dip in happiness, maybe because of circumstances, but, I mean, in some ways they're making the best of it?
HAGERTY: Yeah, yeah. And in fact, it's interesting because if you wait it out, generally it gets better.
GREENE: Barb, thanks a lot.
HAGERTY: You're welcome.
GREENE: Writer Barbara Bradley Hagerty.
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