Monthly Archives: November 2014

Newsletter – November 2014








“Midlife crisis begins sometime in your 40s, when you look at your life and think, “Is this all?” And it ends about 10 years later, when you look at your life again and think, “Actually, this is pretty good.”

“Love the things you’ve got until one day you realize that the life you have is the life you want.”

“There’s truth to those old saws about clouds and silver linings and lemonade from lemons. But it can take a good long while to wake up to that: to divine the lessons beneath the clichés and embrace them without feeling like a sap.”



November greetings, Dear Friends…

At 76 I am enjoying life more than I ever have, and, from this perspective, the three quotes above make absolute sense to me now. They wouldn’t have much earlier.

So I want to share some new information I’ve found about the phenomenon called “midlife crisis,” and to do that I’m formatting the newsletter a little differently this month. Jonathan Rauch has pulled together a number of pieces of fascinating research into one substantial piece titled “THE REAL ROOTS OF MIDLIFE CRISIS” in “The Atlantic” on November 17.

The piece is much longer than anything I usually include in the newsletter, and to make it reasonable for our readership, I’ll use my Musings to create what you might call ‘an executive summary with commentary’. My hope is to provide an interesting and useful guide I wish I’d had in my 50’s for navigating the inevitable terrain of ‘Midlife Crisis.’ You’ll also notice I’ve included only one other brief and timely article and more links than usual. Please feel free to send feedback on this approach as I’m considering it as a regular alternative to the old format…

The Atlantic’s sub-title reads:

     What a growing body of research reveals about the biology of human happiness—and how to navigate the (temporary) slump in middle age…

FW:  ‘Temporary’ is the key word here, but a decade or more of ‘slumping’ can seem awfully permanent. Like childbirth, which is also temporary, the midlife crisis often takes on the illusion of eternity. Jonathan begins this way:

     JR:  “… In my 40s, I experienced a lot of success, objectively speaking. I was in a stable and happy relationship; I was healthy; I was financially secure, with a good career and marvelous colleagues; I published a book, wrote for top outlets, won a big journalism prize. If you had described my own career to me as someone else’s, or for that matter if you had offered it to me when I was just out of college, I would have said, “Wow, I want that!” Yet morning after morning (mornings were the worst), I would wake up feeling disappointed, my head buzzing with obsessive thoughts about my failures. I had accomplished too little professionally, had let life pass me by, needed some nameless kind of change or escape…”

FW:  My experience was different here. I didn’t obsess about failures; I just got depressed and would go to bed, pull the covers up over my head and wait it out. Since my career was consulting, my depressions had my ‘home time’ to attack. Interestingly, they never interfered with my working, but they certainly did with my family life!

     JR:  “My dissatisfaction was whiny and irrational, as I well knew, so I kept it to myself…What annoyed me most of all, much more than the disappointment itself, was that I felt ungrateful, the last thing in the world I was entitled to be”

FW:  I didn’t share Jonathan’s guilt of being ungrateful. My emotional response to the disappointment was anger, and I blamed all and everything within reach for causing my unhappiness. Needless to say, most learned to stay out of reach.

     JR:  “Long ago, when I was 30 and he was 66, the late Donald Richie, the greatest writer I have known, told me: “Midlife crisis begins sometime in your 40s, when you look at your life and think, Is this all? And it ends about 10 years later, when you look at your life again and think, Actually, this is pretty good.” In my 50s, thinking back, his words strike me as exactly right.”

FW:  It was in my 50th year that everything really fell apart, but not in my work which went on easily. What happened was my partner of fourteen years and mother of four of my five children said, “I don’t want to be with you any more.” I, whose consulting business was teaching awareness, didn’t see this coming at all, and the ground dropped out from under me. While it’s now clear this was the puncturing my hugely inflated ego needed, twenty-six years ago I sunk very deeply into “Is this all there is?”

FW:  Like Jonathan, I was quick to find new adventures – a new partner, new motorhome way of life, new forms for my work – that restored meaning and joy to my life. But from my 76 year old perspective I now see these as a life-sustaining rather than life-transforming – and the difference between a life transition and life transformation has become central to my moving from ‘adulthood’ to ‘elderhood.’

FW:  By a ‘life transition’ I mean those times when our life can be quite shaken, such as by losing a job or a partner, and we have to go through the pain and struggle of replacing what was lost. By a ‘life transformation’ I mean those developmental chasms when we must release the current identity (as a cute child, a macho adolescent, a competitively successful adult, etc.) we have invested so much time and energy in constructing.

FW:  Transformations are much more difficult than transitions because we must let go of the old identity before – and in order to – discover the new. They require going through the terribly vulnerable void of ‘the little death’ so we can be born again into a new life and new world. Elizabeth Kubler Ross’ work on “Death and Dying” describes five stages of such a transformation, Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and Acceptance, and these are part of our ‘little deaths’ as well. The image of the molting lobster helps me feel the desperation of the transformation process. The lobster must release the old shell/identity so the new can grow slowly into place, and I imagine being that naked little being scuttling from rock to rock while waiting to be, and feel, safe again…

JR:  “I was about 50 when I discovered the U-curve and began poking through the growing research on it. What I wish I had known in my 40s (or, even better, in my late 30s) is that happiness may be affected by age, and the hard part in middle age, whether you call it a midlife crisis or something else, is for many people a transition to something much better—something, there is reason to hope, like wisdom. I wish someone had told me what I was able to tell my worried friend: nothing was wrong with him, and he wasn’t alone.”

FW:  I wasn’t alone, either, and becoming part of a community that shared feelings and experiences of aging in a culture that glorifies youth was more helpful than I can say. In a way, our work was like AA and many other forms of community that provide support for what we think is ‘only our problem.’ I’m very grateful for the companionship of Bill Sadler who researched and wrote The Third Age and all my other Center for Third Age Leadership colleagues during this time – and I’m only understanding the power of the U-curve now thanks to Jonathan’s sharing his learning. There really is nothing like knowing the difficulties you’re finding so overwhelming are, in fact, ‘normal’…

     JR:  In the 1970s, an economist named Richard Easterlin, then at the University of Pennsylvania, learned of surveys gauging people’s happiness in countries around the world. Intrigued, he set about amassing and analyzing the data, in the process discovering what came to be known as the Easterlin paradox: beyond a certain point, countries don’t get happier as they get richer…

     JR:  A generation later, in the 1990s, happiness economics resurfaced. This time a cluster of labor economists, among them David Blanchflower of Dartmouth and Andrew Oswald of the University of Warwick, got interested in the relationship between work and happiness…“Whatever sets of data you looked at,” Blanchflower told me in a recent interview, “you got the same things”: life satisfaction would decline with age for the first couple of decades of adulthood, bottom out somewhere in the 40s or early 50s, and then, until the very last years, increase with age, often (though not always) reaching a higher level than in young adulthood. The pattern came to be known as the happiness U-curve.

     JR:  The U-curve emerges in answers to survey questions that measure satisfaction with life as a whole, not mood from moment to moment…[and]…the pattern turns up much too often to ignore. For example, in a 2008 study, Blanchflower and Oswald found the U-curve—with the nadir, on average, at age 46—in 55 of 80 countries where people were asked, “All things considered, how satisfied are you with your life as a whole these days?” Graham and Milena Nikolova recently…found a relationship between age and happiness in 80 countries, and in all but nine of those, satisfaction bottomed out between the ages of 39 and 57 (the average nadir was at about age 50)…

FW:  Some things are worth repeating: “They found a relationship between age and happiness in 80 countries, and in all but nine of those, satisfaction bottomed out between the ages of 39 and 57 (the average nadir was at about age 50)”… “In other words, if all else is equal, it may be more difficult to feel satisfied with your life in middle age than at other times”…

     JR:  In recent work, however, U-curve researchers have begun to find evidence that is harder to dismiss as mere statistical correlation. Oswald, Terence Cheng, and Nattavudh Powdthavee have found the U-curve in four longitudinal data sets from three countries…[and]… Blanchflower and Oswald, looking at samples from 27 European countries, have found a “strong hill-shaped pattern” in the use of antidepressants, peaking in people’s late 40s. Being middle-aged “nearly doubles” a person’s likelihood of using antidepressants.

FW:  “Being middle-aged ‘nearly doubles’ a person’s likelihood of using antidepressants.” Yes, this fits my life, too…

     JR:  And a lot of eyebrows went up when Oswald and four other scholars, including two primatologists, found a U-shaped curve in chimpanzees’ and orangutans’ state of mind over time. …“Our results,” the authors concluded in a 2012 paper, “imply that human wellbeing’s curved shape is not uniquely human and that…its origins may lie partly in the biology we share with closely related great apes.”

     JR:  I think where the evidence points is this: being satisfied is perfectly possible in midlife, but for a great many of us it is harder. That is how the U-curve felt to me, and how it feels to some of the people I unscientifically surveyed for this article.

FW:  Yes, and it’s important to keep the distinction between ‘life transitions’ and ‘life transformations’ in mind here; if we don’t, we can’t understand and accept the order of magnitude difference in “harder” between the two. And there are ways to ease even the most difficult as JR describes in this story about his friend K…

     JR:  K.’s 50s have brought not only less external turbulence but less on the inside, too. “On a day-to-day basis, I probably do the same things, but I feel different”… It was always striving and looking ahead, as opposed to being in the now and feeling grateful for the now. I think I feel a great gratitude. When I am in a situation when I can moan a little bit or feel bad about some of the difficult things that have happened, the balance sheet is hugely on the side of all the great things that have happened. And I think that gratitude has helped me be both more satisfied and more giving.” She describes her 50s, so far, as good and improving.

FW:  Learning to practice gratitude has been the most powerful aid to my happiness I’ve found, and I highly recommend checking out and subscribing to the daily email…

     JR:  …something has changed inside [me], too, because in my 40s, I had plenty of success and none of it seemed adequate, which was why I felt so churlish. For me, after a period when gratitude seemed to have abandoned me, its return feels like a gift.

     JR:  It turns out that there is good science about this gift: studies show quite strongly that people’s satisfaction with their life increases, on average, from their early 50s on through their 60s and 70s and even beyond…In a 2011 study, for example, the Stanford University psychologist Laura Carstensen and seven colleagues found that “the peak of emotional life may not occur until well into the seventh decade”—a finding that is “often met with disbelief in both the general population and the research community,” despite its strength…

     JR:  Of course, the most interesting question, and unfortunately also the hardest question, is: Why is happiness so often U-shaped? Why the common dissatisfaction in middle age? And why the upswing afterward?

     JR:  A common hypothesis, and one that seems right to me, is alluded to by Carstensen and her colleagues in their 2011 paper: “As people age and time horizons grow shorter,” they write, “people invest in what is most important, typically meaningful relationships, and derive increasingly greater satisfaction from these investments.” Midlife is, for many people, a time of recalibration, when they begin to evaluate their lives less in terms of social competition and more in terms of social connectedness…when the future becomes less distant, more constrained, people focus on the present, and we think that’s better for emotional experience. The goals that are chronically activated in old age are ones about meaning and savoring and living for the moment.” These are exactly the changes that K. and others in my own informal research sample reported.

FW:  It is no wonder to me that we men often find aging harder and die earlier. My overwhelming experience is that women are more inclined and adept at building and maintaining connection…

     JR:  In my own case, however, what seems most relevant is a change frequently described both in popular lore and in the research literature: for some reason, I became more accepting of my limitations. “Goals, because they’re set in temporal context, change systematically with age,” Carstensen says. “As people perceive the future as increasingly constrained, they set goals that are more realistic and easy to pursue.”

FW:  I, too, have become more accepting of my limitations. Whether it’s my playful memory, loss of hearing or needing to be careful stepping out of the shower, these are not problems, just realities, and I enjoy adjusting. I know ‘enjoy’ must sound strange, but I actually do enjoy adjusting my expectations to my limitations – and in being creative in how to live in the me that is real now…

     JR:  The idea that the expectations gap closes with age has recently received some empirical backing, in the form of fascinating findings by Hannes Schwandt…younger people consistently and markedly overestimated how satisfied they would be five years later, while older people underestimated future satisfaction. So youth is a period of perpetual disappointment, and older adulthood is a period of pleasant surprise…“This finding,” Schwandt writes, “supports the hypothesis that the age U-shape in life satisfaction is driven by unmet aspirations that are painfully felt during midlife but beneficially abandoned and felt with less regret during old age.”

FW:  What a bonus to get beyond middle age – and to experience consistently deeper satisfaction and contentment!

     JR:  Okay, but why does this abandonment and reorientation seem to happen so reliably in midlife?

     JR:  Dilip V. Jeste is a distinguished psychiatrist with an unusual pedigree…He and his colleagues use magnetic-scanning technology and batteries of psychological tests to peer into the brain for clues to how the mind and emotions work…Studying elderly schizophrenics, he was startled to find that they did better as they aged. That led him to explore how people can age successfully—that is, happily—despite health problems and other adverse circumstances. In 2006, and again in 2013, he published findings that people feel better, not worse, about their lives as they move through their later decades, even with the onset of chronic health problems that would lead one to expect distress or depression. “It was really a big surprise,” he says…

     JR:  “That led me to think about wisdom. I started wondering whether the life satisfaction we were seeing in older people was related to their becoming wiser with age, in spite of physical disability…The traits of the wise tend to include compassion and empathy, good social reasoning and decision making, equanimity, tolerance of divergent values, comfort with uncertainty and ambiguity. And the whole package is more than the sum of the parts, because these traits work together to improve life not only for the wise but also for their communities. Wisdom is pro-social. (Has any society ever wanted less of it?)

FW:  This was precisely the thinking that Reb Zalman shares in his From Age-ing to Sage-ing and is carried on by…

     JR:  …it does look likely that some elements of aging are conducive to wisdom, and to greater life satisfaction. In a 2012…a group of German neuroscientists, using brain scans and other physical tests of mental and emotional activity, found that healthy older people (average age: 66) have “a reduced regret responsiveness” compared with younger people (average age: 25). That is, older people are less prone to feel unhappy about things they can’t change—an attitude consistent, of course, with ancient traditions that see stoicism and calm as part of wisdom…“Young people just have more negative feelings,” Elaine Wethington, the Cornell professor, told me…[and]…Laura Carstensen, the Stanford psychologist, told me (summarizing a good deal of evidence), “Young people are miserable at regulating their emotions.”…

FW:  These findings, once again, fit my personal experience of youth and maturity perfectly…

     JR:  …aging changes us in ways that make it easier to be wise (and satisfied, and calm, and grateful). And I believe it suggests the need to rethink the meaning of midlife…I believe, though, that the larger significance of the U-curve is not scientific or medical at all, but cultural. The U-curve offers an opportunity for society to tell a different and better story about life in middle age and beyond: a story that is more accurate and more forgiving and much less embarrassing and lonely.

FW:  When I was young (in the 1950’s to 1990’s – I had a lengthy immaturity) , I would have shouted, “Who cares if you tell stories that make people feel better? The whole point is to MAKE THINGS BETTER NOW!!!” And, of course, back then I meant only outwardly in the physical world – my inward understanding and focus has come with age…

     JR:  Almost as soon as it was born, the social narrative of midlife crisis took on connotations of irresponsibility, escapism, self-indulgence, antisocial behavior…The story of the U-curve, I think, tells an emotionally fairer and more accurate tale. It is a story not of chaos or disruption but of a difficult yet natural transition to a new equilibrium. And I find that when I tell troubled middle-aged people about it, their reaction is one of relief. Just knowing that the phenomenon is common can be therapeutic.

FW:  This is not unlike helping our children get over their fears of the scary ‘bogeyman.’ I wonder how many ‘bogeymen’ I still have to go…

     JR:  …in hindsight, I wish I had been forewarned that the U-curve…was the likely source of my discontent, and that a lot of other people, and possibly also a lot of other primates, were in the same boat.

FW:  I thank Jonathan for pulling all this together so others can benefit from it earlier than I did – it will help many to flow with the disorienting transformation midlife can entail. The full article and U-curve chart can be found here:

Much love, FW




FW NOTE: This is a Thanksgiving pledge that inspires me with its simplicity and truth, and I hope it offers you a feeling of the season, too…

In thanksgiving for life, I pledge
to overcome the illusion of ENTITLEMENT
by reminding myself that everything is a gift
and, thus, to live GRATEFULLY.

In thanksgiving for life, I pledge
to overcome my GREED,
that confuses wants with needs,
by trusting that enough for all our needs is given to us
and to share GENEROUSLY
what I so generously receive.

In thanksgiving for life, I pledge
to overcome APATHY
by waking up to the opportunities
that a given moment offers me
and so to respond CREATIVELY to every situation.

In thanksgiving for life, I pledge
to overcome VIOLENCE
by observing that fighting violence by violence
leads to more violence and death
and, thus, to foster life by acting NON-VIOLENTLY.

In thanksgiving to life, I pledge
to overcome FEAR which is the root of all violence
by looking at whatever I fear as an opportunity
and, thus, COURAGEOUSLY to lay the foundation
for a peaceful future.

Offered at Thanksgiving Square, July 2008











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