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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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.