Mid Life Misery
What it's like and what you can do about it
Adults tend to be the least happy in middle age.
Several years ago, at a musical after-party my stepdaughter was in, I grabbed a plate of food and struck up a conversation with a middle-aged man. “I’ve been thinking about something lately,” he said matter of factly. “When my wife and I were younger, we were happier. I was in medical school, and even though we lived in a small apartment and had no money, we were happy.” A month earlier, another man shared a similar sentiment.
Though I don’t share these men’s nostalgia, their comments have stuck with me. In my 20s, I felt an intangible yet unmistakable sense of lightness and spaciousness. Life felt expansive and rich with possibilities as if great things could happen and dreams could be realized—life partner, entrepreneurial success, kids, a house, cars, vacations, and memories. Then again, I felt the same lightness after divorce.
In a study at Dartmouth, researcher David G. Blanchflower made a surprising discovery. He found that adult happiness tends to follow a u-shaped curve.1 Starting at age 18, our happiness level decreases, bottoming out in our late 40s before returning to the joy we felt at 18 in our mid-60s.
Why does happiness tend to decline throughout our working years (ahem) while surging after retirement? And why do middle-aged adults look back nostalgically on their younger selves, even when they had less of almost everything—less money, less housing, less expensive cars, cheaper clothes, less fancy meals out, and less costly vacations?
Let’s explore some possibilities.
Why We Miss Our Younger Selves
Yesterday looks better today. In psychology, the mind’s tendency to view the past disproportionately better than the present is called rosy retrospection. In ancient Rome, this phenomenon was sometimes referred to as “memoria praeteritorum bonorum,” or “the past is always well remembered.”
Looking back on my life, my feelings today don’t necessarily match reality. For example, my first long-term relationship ended in cheating. Intellectually, I know it was gut-wrenching, but emotionally it feels like one of the best periods of my life. I can recall little, if any, of the sorrow, yet I remember many happy moments. Psychologists believe rosy retrospection may help protect the mind from its negativity.
Increasing responsibilities. In young adulthood, responsibilities are relatively straightforward. Knowing this, a former co-worker enjoyed teasing my twenty-something friend and me, “Hey, thanks for showing up today, guys,” before doubling over in laughter.
But responsibilities tend to increase with age: more demanding work, raising kids, maintaining a house and yard, pets, PTSA meetings, volunteering, fundraising, sitting on boards, aging bodies, aging parents, etc. For many, middle-age is when you experience the most pressure, stress, and overwhelm.
More stuff, less happiness. Adulthood begins simply enough but generally becomes more complicated over time: house, mortgage, multiple cars, multiple bank accounts, traditional IRA, Roth IRA, 401Ks HSAs, 529s, wills, trusts, and life insurance, to name a few. Not to mention all the stuff accumulating over our lifetimes: furniture, computers, devices, digital files, books, sports equipment, photos, paperwork, broken items, kids’ stuff, and even relationships. Some people also have second homes, rental units, Airbnbs, ADUs, and in-laws living with them. Greater complexity means more demands on our time.
Bad memories. In addition to material possessions, emotional memories tend to accumulate too: Failed relationships, friends who disappeared, financial loss, embarrassing moments, past regrets, firings from jobs, unfortunate events, unmet expectations, thwarted desires, things we still want to do, undelivered communications, and future worries.
Unfelt feelings and emotions remain in the body forever, affecting our mood and mental states, creating physical pain, and dampening feelings of joy and happiness.
Feeling trapped. As much as we may enjoy our lives and appreciate raising kids, there comes a time when we feel stuck. As our income increases, we tend to spend more. Savings stagnate, and financial freedom is no closer, yet our job is more stressful. Such lifestyle creep can leave us feeling trapped in our careers.
Raising kids will challenge anyone’s resolve, sometimes making suburban domestication feel like a prison sentence. Just as parents reach peak unhappiness, their children are experiencing peak resentment by being told what to do by parents, teachers, and society. They push back and seek greater independence, making it harder to influence their lives positively and keep them safe.
While parenting may get easier, it never ends.
Unfulfilling relationship. Smoothing out the rigors of adulthood is one of the many benefits of a primary relationship. But with so much pressure to raise successful kids and keep up with inflation and technological change, adults often neglect to nurture their relationship. What may have once been a source of satisfaction and fulfillment is now a wellspring of hurt and resentment. Sex is usually the first casualty, along with romance and emotional intimacy.
Mid-life crisis. Mid-life crisis is real, and virtually everyone will experience it within their lifetime. In childhood, without knowing it, most of us adopted a persona or false self that we thought would keep us safe and loved while surrendering our true selves. But the disconnection between these two selves causes tremendous suffering, especially in adulthood.
Marriage, pets, house, kids, and vacations can distract us for years. But eventually, the disconnection between these two selves becomes so great that we are forced to look in the mirror. Often this happens around middle age. You may ask yourself, what have I been doing for the past twenty years? “And you may tell yourself, this is not my beautiful house. And you may tell yourself, this is not my beautiful wife.”
Impending death. For most, death is an uncomfortable topic. So we tend to ignore it, hoping it will somehow go away. But whether we acknowledge it or not, death is like a shadow, ever ready to snatch us into the void without warning. Ignoring thoughts of death and dying become even more challenging in middle age because, statistically speaking, life is half over. Throw in parents’ increasing sickness, and the specter of dying further crowds one’s mental space.
So, Is There Anything We Can Do About Mid-Life Misery?
These life stressors share a common theme: a sense of heaviness. “Is this it,” we think to ourselves. Such oppressiveness can dampen anyone’s spirit.
Being unhappy at this stage is common, and the challenges are real, but they don’t have to dictate how you feel about your life. If you are middle-aged, most likely you are in the worst of it per the happiness curve. In the coming years, your discontent will likely lessen, and you will reclaim the lightness and joy you felt when you were younger.
Here are some things you can do now to ease the burden.
Simplify. After divorce, I consciously pared my life to the minimum and even hired a clutter buster to help clear out a storage closet. For a time, I lived a glorious Zen-like existence. But then I moved in with my partner and her kids. I tried to recreate my prior living conditions, but it was not to be.
While minimalism may not be a practical option for many families, most can and would benefit tremendously by significantly reducing the amount of stuff in their lives. Everyone can reduce clutter and complexity, some up to eighty percent. This includes everything from furniture to digital files and paperwork to cardboard boxes. Doing so would go a long way to feeling psychologically lighter and freeing time and energy for more meaningful activities.
Thoreau was right; simplicity is one of the great joys of life.
Spend less, save more. Comfort is overrated, and no amount of material possessions can provide lasting satisfaction. Despite knowing this, countless people will continue buying more expensive stuff. But every adult and family can cut back on spending and boost savings. The more you save, the closer you are to financial freedom. Money won’t buy happiness, but economic independence will give you choices and relieve psychological pressure.
Nurture love. The more you invest emotionally in your relationship, the more you will receive in return, and the closer and more fulfilling your relationship will be. Relationship is the best investment of your life energy outside your spiritual practice. Working with a counselor or therapist can help rekindle your love and partnership if it's been years since you felt close.
Feel your feelings. Allowing ourselves to feel ancient, suppressed feelings and emotions like grief, sadness, and rage releases them from being trapped in the body. This process enables us to experience less bodily pain and feel more alive and vital. Feeling painful feelings also allows us to feel pleasant feelings like contentment, joy, and happiness. Learning emotional literacy is one of the greatest gifts you can give yourself.
Practice awareness. Bringing awareness to feeling stuck or trapped can help create space around those painful feelings. Learning to trust can give us the perspective needed to make it through the worst times. Our circumstances may not change, but we can feel greater freedom amidst them.
Make peace with dying. Being okay with death requires becoming intimate with dying. Instead of running away or distracting yourself, explore and investigate your fear of death. Paradoxically, the greater your awareness of dying, the more freedom and aliveness you will feel.
For further insights into aging, I recommend the book The Middle Passage by James Hollis.
Eyes Wide Open
Middle age is challenging, even for the most awakened individuals. It’s a transition period marked by tremendous pressures, internal and external, practical and existential.
Numbing yourself, having an affair, or buying an expensive car may temporarily soothe your psyche but won’t relieve your troubles. Staying in the heat of the fire with open eyes is the only way in and out.
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