5 Tips to Beat a Midlife Crisis

Midlife. Ugh. When “This is it!” turns to “this is it?” Is there a way to get out of a midlife crisis, or—better yet—avoid it altogether?

It was sometime in February this year. Or at least I think it was—my memory is not so great these days—when I noticed something different in the mirror. Sprouting from the top of my head was a little gray sapling of a hair. A grain of salt lost amidst a pepper sea. Although tiny, it was a harbinger of something bigger. One day, that salt grain will swell into a salty sea. A jolting reminder that time’s tide will smother you.

I hit midlife.

Crisis?

Midlife is when the optimism of your youth turns into the rueing of wasted youth and pessimism about your future. Many of you are feeling this now. In America, you’re typically in your midlife in your late 30s. (Sorry my Millennial friends; this means that you’re there or about to get there soon). For many of us, it can be a time of intense struggle and unhappiness—a crisis. But it doesn’t have to be. Instead, it can be a time of reflection and inflection back to a deeper happiness.

First, let’s explore why we struggle so much in our midlives, the fallacy of a midlife, and the power of reflection to help you get through it.

(I created a FREE guidebook during my time of reflection. I’d love to share it with you—just sign up to for email updates and it will be delivered to your inbox!)

The Struggle is Real

Midlife isn’t just the midpoint of your life. It’s a state of mind. And it happens to a lot of us in a lot of different places. Jonathan Rauch, in his article “The Real Roots of Midlife Crisis” in The Atlantic, cites research on midlife crisis.

Rauch mentions the work of economists David Blanchflower from Dartmouth and Andrew Oswald from the University of Warwick. They found, in a pattern repeated in many countries, that life satisfaction declines from your early 20s, bottoms somewhere in your 40s to early 50s, then increases with age, often reaching a higher level than in your 20s. They call this the “Happiness U-Curve.”

Source: The Atlantic, “The Real Roots of Midlife Crisis”

The bottom of that “U” is (you guessed it) your midlife crisis. Oswald found that going from age 20 to age 45 felt equal to 1/3rd the effect of getting fired or laid off. Being middle-aged almost doubles your likelihood of using antidepressants. In other words? It stinks. It’s no surprise when we think about how we think and events that happen outside of our control.

6 Reasons Midlife is Hard

  • We’re Poor Predictors. Our poor ability to predict is the reason we become so unhappy. Princeton Economist Hannes Schwandt found that younger people overestimate future satisfaction, while older people underestimate future satisfaction. Think about that: in middle age, you are both disappointed and pessimistic. (Interestingly enough, our poor predictions also help us get out of the trough of sorrow—we start setting low expectations and get pleasantly surprised. But I don’t think you want to go about life thinking it’s going to suck just to be surprised that it doesn’t. I get into it more with my 5 tips.)
  • Death & Illness. People you love start dying. This is the time where your parents go from independent old to dependent old. This is the time you get calls from your friends about their cancer, or from their loved ones about their heart attacks.
  • Divorce. Couples you love (or even you) get divorced. Over 90% of divorces happen by the time you hit 40, so in your midlife, you’ve already experienced a lot of heartbreak.
  • Financial Stress. You’re hit financially on two ends: You start paying college tuition as well as caring for aging parents. (Harvard knows this, which is why they have/had a policy of not asking you as often for donations 25 years after graduation)
  • Work Stress. When the financial stress comes, you’re helped by being in your peak earnings season. But that also brings about a lot of work stress as you’ve gotten promoted and taken on a lot of work responsibility. So you spend more hours doing what stresses you, leaving less time and energy for whom and what you love.
  • Teen Children. You’re busting your tail to make sure you can send your kids to college. Since they were born, you’ve poured every ounce of love you have into them. As teenagers, your kids respond by…being embarrassed by you. Or they hate you. In How to Talk So Your Kids Will Listen, H. Norman Wright mentions that, as your children get older, they want fewer words from you. Your relationship with them changes—they’d rather chat with their friends than you. Those sweet bedtime stories in their room turn into closed doors meant to shut you out.

Middle of Nowhere

Here’s the fallacy of midlife: You actually don’t know whether you’re in the middle of your life or not. You don’t know whether you’ll live another 100 years or only one more day. And because we can’t know our end point with any precision, we don’t really act rationally.

Let’s say you have a gumball dispenser that couldn’t be replenished. If you withdraw a gumball from it daily, as the days progress you see the mound deplete. You value each remaining gumball more. Your last gumball would mean more to you than the first one. This is a rational response.

But let’s say you cover that dispenser so you can’t see how many gumballs you had left. Wouldn’t you feel some anxiety that your current one could be your last? And that’s just with gumballs. When it comes to thinking about our remaining days, it’s too uncomfortable to live with that anxiety. To cope with the discomfort of death, we willfully forget that we have an expiration date. In many ways, this willful forgetfulness serves us well because otherwise we’d be paralyzed with fear. But sometimes we are so good at forgetting that we act as if we have an unending supply of days. We don’t value our days at all when, with each passing day, the value of today actually increases because you have one fewer day left.

“If you survive until tomorrow, it could mean that either a) you are more likely to be immortal or b) that you are closer to death.”—Nassim Nicholas Taleb, The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable

Reflection and Inflection

Because you don’t know when your actual midlife is, why defer living your life to the fullest for when you’re too old and tired? Why not start valuing your precious remaining gumballs now? Why wait until your 50s to start feeling happy again?

I rejected my gloomy midlife sentence by entering a period of purposeful reflection (don’t worry, it’s something you can do without too much time—see the 5 tips below). Now, let me just say that as an extrovert, reflection is something that’s unnatural to me so I’ve hardly ever done it. Here’s what happened when I actually did try it: This process of reflection compressed decades of angst into a few weeks.

Reflecting with purpose can produce an emotional inflection. It’s hard to say what my happiness level is with any exactitude, but it’s definitely above an 8. If you go back to the Happiness U-Curve chart, that means I’m at least as happy as an 85 year old. I fast-forwarded almost 50 years on the happiness curve. (Fingers crossed, as I won’t know for certain if it will be sustained—but I’m actually experiencing a few of the 6 reasons above that could be dragging me way down, yet aren’t, thanks mainly to perspective gained from my time reflecting. I’ll tell you in 50 years if it lasts.)

Basically? By reflecting with purpose and action you create a sharper inflection in your Happiness U-Curve. The tepid smile of that “U” turns into a big grin.

This period of reflection has been tonic for a grumpy spiritual stomach, and it was sparked and guided by two recent sermons at my church, City Church Philadelphia.

The Two Competing Forces

There are 2 forces that you’re going to have to face if you’re going to be honest with yourself during your period of reflection. The first is desire. What do you truly want? The second is fear. Will you make the changes or take the steps, no matter how uncomfortable, to get what you want?

  • Desire: Pastor Chris Currie referenced an op-ed from David Brooks in The New York Times called “The Moral Bucket List.” While I recall having read the article when it was first published, it took on new life and deeper meaning in the sermon. Perhaps because I’m now in my midlife? In any case, Brooks makes the differentiation between our “resume virtues” and “eulogy virtues.” He writes that resume virtues are “the skills you bring to the marketplace” while eulogy virtues are “the ones that are talked about at your funeral—whether you were kind, brave, honest or faithful.” We probably all agree that eulogy virtues are more important, but we spend all our time and energy on our resume virtues. This sermon ignited my journey of self-reflection. Sensing a deep need in me to really wrestle with this contradiction between what I truly want versus how I actually live my life, my amazing and thoughtful wife took the kids to the library for 2 hours every weekend so that I could pray, reflect, and write, not knowing where my thoughts would take me and if I had the guts to follow through. One thing was clear—fear was already creeping in.
  • Fear: Recently, Pastor Tuck Bartholomew touched briefly on concept of the Fear of the Lord, and his explanation is the best I’ve ever heard. He used the illustration of his mother-in-law’s fear of snakes, and how that fear brought about an ever present awareness of them whenever she would be out in the yard. It also dictated her actions and how she walked around the yard. Yes, the point was about how Fear of the Lord was about that same awareness and resulting action, but without the feeling of being scared. But it also gave me a deeper understanding of how fear in general works. In my reflection time afterward, I immediately wrote a whole entry on my fear of failure. Fear of failure is a bossy thing. Because we fear failure so much, we prevent ourselves from acting on what we truly want, even though acting is in our best interest.

So, realizing we need to be honest about our desires and fears during our time of reflection… how do we reflect well?

5 Tips to Purposeful Reflection

It’s an odd thing to deal with your midlife by thinking about your end-of-life. While we aren’t assured about tomorrow, it does mean that today is a gift. Here are 5 tips to purposeful reflection:

  1. Multiple Sittings. Allow yourself at least four weekly 2-hour sittings. One sitting would subject you to the whims you feel at the moment. By spreading it out over 4 sittings, you can look back to see if your thoughts and desires have been consistent.
  2. Write Down Your Thoughts. If you leave it in your head, it stays in your head. If it stays in your head, you forget about it and don’t ever allow it the freedom to jump out of its cage and roam where it wants to.
  3. Ask Yourself What You Truly Want. Not what you think you want, but what you truly want. Don’t be afraid to be embarrassed—you don’t have to share it with anyone. The interesting thing is we think we’ll instantly know our answer. But when you try to put it to paper, you realize it’s harder to put it into words. But when you do put it down, beginning with the words “I want_____”, it becomes a mission statement.
  4. Spend At Least 15 Minutes Each Time Being Grateful. Not just “I’m thankful for X, Y, Z.” But really think about why you’re grateful for it or them, and what life would be like if you didn’t have it or them. Think about fond memories you’ve had with the things or people you’re grateful for. Know, deep in your bones, that your deeper want has already been accomplished on the Cross. In this way, it should give you freedom from fear and redeem the reason for your goals. You’re setting your goal not to complete you but out of knowing that you’re already complete. (I believe this is the reason for the upturn in the Happiness U-Curve during the later years. The stimulated happiness of youth is replaced with joy and contentment of life lived.)
  5. Make an Action Plan. Eulogy virtues are only realized when you take action to achieve them. For example, if you want to be more kind, then you need to actually figure out how you’re going to do it. Otherwise, this will be just another one in your dust bin of ideas. If this is really important to you, then take action. This is the whole reason why I created the guide. You can preview it here.

My Eulogy Virtue

I want to be remembered for my generosity. Not only of money, but my time and love. They’re already things I’ve been working on, so it’s not a complete departure, but it will take some restructuring in my life to achieve it.

  • Generosity of Money. It means that I would have to set a big goal of creating a machine that could give more than I ever could on my own and can operate beyond me so that it could still generate money for the things I care about even after my gumballs have run out. Then I could give posthumously in a sustainable way without a large endowment (although a large endowment would be nice), since I plan to give away most of my wealth before the gumballs run empty.
  • Generosity of Time. This means that I’m present in my interactions with my loved ones. That I put the phone away and learn to listen intently when I’m with them. To do that, I need to make sure I sleep better than I do now to improve my attention. (You may have noticed that the frequency of my blog posting has decreased as I’ve consciously made a decision to reduce my up-til-2am writing sessions.) Also, I now say “no” to things I otherwise would’ve said “yes” to. For example, I recently turned down the chance to lead the financial subcommittee on one of the Boards where I serve. And when it’s time to renew, I intend to step down. I’m not seeking anymore resume virtues.
  • Generosity of Love. You can’t give something you don’t have. And with love, I need to access a big warehouse of it so that I can give more of it. That means God’s love for me has to continually filter from my head and fill my heart. That means a lifestyle of reflection and prayer. And in my prayers, more gratitude in the large and little things. It also means being more effusive in my affection (by words, hugs, and service) for my loved ones.

You will also note that I’m trying to solve or preempt a few of the 6 reasons listed above for why midlife is so difficult. By creating a machine that can give more money, if I do encounter financial stress, I can access some of it. By increasing the quality of my time with my loved ones, I will lessen the chance of divorce and (hopefully!) lessen the whole “my kids hate me” thing when they’re teens.

What about that part about us being poor predictors? As you’ll see in the guide, I spent a lot of time thinking about how to make better predictions, drawing on strategies from a former McKinsey consultant and billion dollar hedge fund manager.

Ok, so how do you go from point A to point B? How do you actually maximize your chances of taking successful action?

It was grueling to think about. At times, I was so tired of thinking and writing about it that I’d rather punch myself than keep thinking. But I sat my bottom down and persisted. Then it occurred to me: “hey, I think my friends [that’s you!] might benefit from this.”

So, here we are. I did a lot of the work for you and created a 17-page guide that goes really in-depth on how to achieve what you truly want, what I call your “Big Goal.” I’m super excited to share it with you for FREE! All you have to do is sign up to receive email updates from us! You can preview it here.

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