I’m still having my midlife crisis, I think. It started when I one day realized that I had unconsciously imagined that my mid-20s self would simply grow into a middle-aged person who had nicer clothes, but would still go to gallery openings, weird theater shows, and feedback-drenched indie rock shows at dive bars. On top of that, I’d finally be able to speak and understand French.
That’s what I had imagined. What is today’s reality? I answer emails 31 hours a day. The highlight of my personal edification is wandering into Trader Joe’s to uncover what kooky new thing they’ve infused with pumpkin. My mid-20s self would mutter “as if” at my precautions to make sure I don’t drink coffee after noon. I now carefully consider the health implications of shoveling snow too enthusiastically.
Hopefully you’re as bored with my midlife crisis as my family and friends are. If you want to rescue me by launching a guerilla dance troupe in Fort Collins, Colorado, or by setting aside passes for me at your next gallery opening, be my guest. My midlife crisis is sufficiently nerdy that it leaves me plenty of emotional space to appreciate the blessings in my life. I adore my family, I’m pretty healthy, I don’t have any huge sins to atone for, and my job as a professor who travels the world researching and speaking about meaning and purpose in life is suitably weird and wonderful.
Still, I wonder: What is a midlife crisis, anyway? Why should midlife be a time of crisis—and what do we mean by “crisis”? Is it a time of change, a fulcrum from the past to the future, or is it just a fabricated leftover from an earlier generation? Finally, how the heck am I going to get through my crisis without understanding French?
Meaning, purpose, and midlife
These are difficult questions to answer with research. If people believe that midlife is a significant time of change and reprioritization, then it is, even if there is no particularly good reason for it.
Many of the reasons given for why we reach turning points, large and small, refer to hormonal changes related to testosterone or menopause, or the kids leaving home to become (semi-)independent adults, or to the ailing health of parents, or to the life cycle of a career in which many plaudits have been earned and the next advancement requires massive life changes or simply the mind-numbing drudgery of “more of the same.” Explanations for why crises happen in midlife often highlight that many of these factors can coincide. There is some recent evidence that happiness definitely dips in midlife.
Whether or not a re-evaluation of one’s life is warranted by reaching a particular age, the themes of change—in our bodies, our family roles as providers, our careers or ambitions, our need to learn French—are all deeply relevant to our sense of meaning and purpose in life. If who we are and what we do and how others see us suddenly seems altered, or incomplete, or even dissatisfying, the basic building blocks of meaning can be threatened.
Scholars tend to view meaning in life as being made up of three primary elements.
- Coherence is our ability to make sense of our lives.
- Significance is our perception that life is fundamentally worth living and that we ourselves matter.
- Purpose is our commitment to pursue very long-term goals that are deeply important to us and organize our choices and actions in life.
Research does not always find that meaning declines as we age. A quite large study in California found that meaning in life peaked at around age 60 in their participants. My own research suggests that meaning in life does not necessarily peak like this, but it is tricky (to say the least) attempting to pin down trajectories of a complex human experience like meaning in life based on surveys that are only taken at one point in time. Additional studies would help us better understand whether and why meaning in life peaks, for whom, and if it is mainly the purpose element that seems most challenging for us in midlife and beyond.
Purpose gets the most attention of the three elements of meaning because it is the piece that actively expresses and enacts all the rest. Great purposes grow from the sense we make of the world and help us make the contributions that assure us our lives matter. If we feel we are “doing the wrong thing” with our lives, we probably don’t have a great sense of purpose.
In the largest meta-analysis to date, Martin Pinquart reviewed 70 studies on purpose in life across the lifespan. This study concluded that there is a small drop in purpose that can be observed as people grow into old age. This was a study of the purpose element of meaning in life, and many of the instruments used to measure purpose ask people how much they have lots of goals or interesting things to look forward to. It seems somewhat logical that we have fewer future-oriented goals or activities as we get older, but that is not necessarily reassuring news. In fact, to many of us, having fewer goals can make it feel as if we have less to live for.
That might be why finding a sense of purpose is the key to getting through your midlife crisis. There’s a nice review of the relevant research in another article in Greater Good, “How to Find Your Purpose in Midlife.” In that piece, leaders in the field like Patrick Hill and Eric Kim explain how purpose is reliably linked to better health, including agility, speed, and grip strengths among older adults, as well as better cognitive functioning and even longevity. In fact, there are dozens of studies like this now showing that we live healthier, happier, more cognitively capable, and significantly longer lives when we have meaning and purpose, and these studies are conducted with strong methodologies and excellent statistical control over other relevant factors.
Through studies like these, a picture emerges of purpose after 50. It’s really good for us, and a lot of us have it. While some aspects of the meaning and purpose recipe fall away as we get into our later years, other aspects, as well as a general impression that one’s life is meaningful, may keep rising to new heights for many of us as we age, bringing numerous benefits for health and well-being.
Find your purpose, save your midlife
So, what do you do, if you find yourself in the midst of a crisis of meaning and purpose in midlife? Here are three suggestions based on the three elements of meaning in life, coherence, significance, and purpose:
- Figure out who you are, and develop some sense of how the world generally works that gives you a sense of consistency and predictability. After years of burning the candle at both ends, pause and reinvest time and attention in reflection and learning. Reconnect with your strengths, values, and what gives you joy.
- Discover and protect the sense that your life has value, and that being alive is worthwhile, and pay attention to ways in which you make a positive difference and that your life matters. If you are like most people, your relationships play a crucial role in making life feel significant. Spend time and attention understanding how your relationships have changed over the years. What needs to happen so that you and the important people around you can continue to grow together?
- Give your time and energy to the dreams and aspirations that are deeply important to you, that ideally improve life beyond you and around you, and that help you organize your goals and choices in life. This is the big Purpose item. To my mind, the best purposes are not strictly attainable. They aren’t dull items on a checklist to be ticked off and forgotten. They are dreams so important that simply working toward them is important and fulfilling. With purposes like these, it doesn’t matter how many years any of us have left; all of them can be infused with our pursuit of purpose.
This is easier said than done, of course. (There just aren’t many things that are easier done than said…tech support maybe?) This list of priorities for a meaningful life is like an anti-shopping list. There are no shelves displaying prepackaged “know yourself” pods and no multipacks of “here’s how my life matters” to stock up on. I believe it really is the process of exploring the list for yourself that creates the meaning and purpose that nurture us in life. Part of the battle for meaning in midlife is to simply recognize that meaning is important for your well-being, as opposed to a distraction from the important stuff, like all those emails you need to answer. Meaning is not another nagging chore, either; it is a foundation for a fun and impactful life.
How the middle-aged have found purpose
I asked my LinkedIn connections what they thought about purpose after 50. Across public comments and private messages, an exciting and inspiring image came into focus.
One of the leading themes was the re-examination of whether the systems people had lived by were still working for them. For example, one accomplished coach and entrepreneur told me that in her late 40s she recognized that the success and opportunity she had earned in her life as an executive came at a serious cost to her health. She launched a second career as the leader of a coaching company that helps people live a healthier, happier life.
Similarly, another career-changing professional talked about recognizing her personal values were out of step with corporate values. She went on an around-the-world adventure, and shifted her skills and expertise away from optimizing the customer experience for profit, toward optimizing those experiences for well-being.
A second major theme involved turning away from financial incentives and turning instead toward helping others and being of service. Two very successful leaders in the world of happiness programs and coaching talked about the importance of giving back. One of these leaders devotes time to an organization that aims to smash stigmas around mental health, and the other organized his practice into a B-Corp, which is a formal business charter to build “B”enefits for people or planet into the revenue structure of a company.
Other people commented on the importance of education, pursuing Master’s degrees, working to rejuvenate an interest in constant learning and growth, and building businesses or organizations that will last. Each of these paths helped people find and foster purpose after 50.
It might seem silly to engage in fretful navel-gazing about whether life has been everything we hoped for when we hit 50 (or any other random birthday). However, no matter how old you are, it does seem vital to regularly ask whether you are truly doing what you want and what you could do with your life. Having some degree of prosperity and privilege—as in some of the cases mentioned above—might make the quest for meaning easier, but “What is the meaning of my life?” is a question all people must ask, sooner or later. And the answer often seems to require sharing whatever resources you might have.
Is there anything special about the age 50 or about midlife generally? I don’t know, but I do resonate deeply with the words of one of my LinkedIn commentators, Heidi Stone, who talked about an important moment in her own journey as a “catalyst for a fresh take on life.”
I suspect it doesn’t matter if we pursue a fresh take on life at age 50, 62, or 76. What seems more important is that we try to be open for any catalysts that can help us take a fresh look at whether we are doing the work now, and living our lives now, in a way that builds the vital resource of meaning and purpose in life.
I suppose that should put an end to my midlife crisis, but…encore, je ne peux pas parler français!