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Midlife Crises Don't Exist

Posted by Josh Rothman  October 5, 2011 11:14 PM

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Do mid-life crises really exist? Freaked-out forty-something men certainly like to think so -- but, according to Jesse Bering, a psychologist, there's not much evidence in their favor. Writing at Scientific American, Bering reviews the literature: "Epidemiological studies reveal that midlife is no more or less likely to be associated with career disillusionment, divorce, anxiety, alcoholism, depression or suicide than any other life stage; in fact, the incidence rates of many of these problems peak at other periods of the lifespan. Adolescence isn’t exactly a walk in the park either."

Dante used his midlife crisis to artistic advantage.

The term "midlife crisis," Bering explains, was never meant to apply to ordinary guys, anyway; it was coined in 1965 by Elliott Jacques, a Canadian psychoanalyst interested in the life-trajectories of great artistic geniuses. Many geniuses, Jacques noticed, seemed to die in their mid-thirties -- sometimes artistically, sometimes actually. Many others seemed to change course, adopting new strategies or moving onto new subjects. Artists, he concluded, had to weather a midlife creative crisis, looking back on what they'd accomplished as artists and wondering, "Is that all?" In the 1970s, other psychoanalysts drew on Jacques' idea; Daniel Levinson's book The Seasons of a Man's Life democratized the midlife crisis in 1978, bringing it within reach of ordinary, non-artistic men.

That doesn't mean, of course, that people don't have midlife crises -- only that they're not inevitable, and might not really be "crises" after all. The midlife crisis, Bering concludes, is really a kind of "social script." We may have them mainly because we think we ought to.

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
Brainiac blogger Kevin Hartnett is a writer in Columbia, South Carolina. He can be reached here.

Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.

Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.

Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.

Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.

Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.


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