It’s not a crisis. It’s a blah-ness, an internal fog that won’t quite lift. Even when your life’s going well on the outside, something feels amiss on the inside. Midlife malaise has many facets: hormonal changes, empty nest, divorce, career dissatisfaction, and more. The good news is that most people weather midlife malaise pretty well, and so can you. Here’s some encouragement if you’re feeling stuck.
The best way out (of midlife malaise) is through
“The best way out is through.” I’ve always associated that quote with Buddhist teaching. It echoes Buddhism’s Four Noble Truths, as it acknowledges the existence of suffering and points toward a path leading to release from suffering.
But in my research for this post, I couldn’t find a quote from the Buddha that contained this phrase. However, I did find a quote from Robert Frost. It appears in “A Servant to Servants,” a long rambling poem spoken by a farm wife to a visitor camping out on her property. The woman talks about her fatigue from cooking and cleaning for her husband and his hired hands. She also talks about her mental illness, time in the State Asylum, and loneliness on the farm. She envies the visitor’s freedom to come and go, to live at one with nature.
The housewife repeats her husband’s advice, perhaps to encourage herself to persist through a difficult time:
He says the best way out is always through.
And I agree to that, or in so far
As that I can see no way out but through—
Whether you attribute the actual words “the only way out is through” to Gautama Buddha or Robert Frost, the takeaway is the same. In life you will have suffering. As hard as it sounds, the best – or the only – way out of suffering is to experience life’s pain. Only when you allow yourself to plumb the depths will you begin to climb out of them.
Going through to go out: Jewish and Christian perspectives
Both Jewish and Christian teachings offer images that resonate with the concept of going through to get out. In a story central to both religious traditions, God leads the Israelites out of bondage in Egypt by parting the Red Sea, so they can walk through it. (Exodus 14) Charlton Heston popularized the scene in Cecile B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments:
After the Red Sea, God leads His people in a circuitous path around the wilderness for 40 years, supplying manna as their only food. The Israelites know their ultimate destination is Canaan, “a land flowing with milk and honey,” but their time in the desert is all about the journey. Only after this intense period of wandering and learning to trust God do they get to enter the Promised Land. (Joshua 5:6)
Similarly at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, the Spirit “drives him out into the wilderness.” He is there for 40 days. During this time, he fasts and is tempted by Satan. (Mark 1:12-13) For Christians, the ultimate expression of going through to get out is Jesus’ suffering, death and resurrection. (Matthew 27-28)
To my knowledge, the Bible doesn’t address midlife suffering as a standalone topic. But major faith traditions like Buddhism, Judaism and Christianity all embrace the concept that life involves suffering. And neither belief nor good behavior lets you escape suffering. Thus you can expect to suffer in life – including at midlife.
Midlife malaise isn’t usually severe physical, mental or emotional suffering. But it’s suffering all the same. Your best way to weather midlife malaise is to accept it. To go through it, not to sidestep it. In avoiding or denying midlife malaise, you risk it catching up to you later on.
Know you’re not alone as you weather midlife malaise
The 2010 U.S. census recorded 81 million people ages 45-64, up 32% from 2000. It also recorded 82 million people ages 25-44. Millions of Americans are passing through midlife. Not all are experiencing midlife malaise, but many of them are.
Increasing use of antidepressant medication offers an indication of midlife malaise’s prevalence. During 2011-2014, 21% of women ages 40-59 and 24% of women over age 60 took antidepressants. This compares to only 10% antidepressant use among women 20-39.
And statistics like these don’t account for the people who feel a little down, or a little “off,” and yet don’t ask for antidepressant medication. It’s easy to estimate that over 21% of midlife women will have to weather midlife malaise of one sort or another. Translation: you’re not alone.
But you may feel lonely
Midlife malaise is a lonely place. When I was at the worst point of my own midlife malaise, all I noticed around me were women who seemed to be thriving. They were happy to see their kids off to college, happy to travel with their spouses or friends. Some went back to work, started long-overdue remodeling projects or moved to smaller, more comfortable homes.
I didn’t notice other women who, like me, kept to themselves and wondered if something was wrong with them. I was too wrapped up in my own midlife funk. This post on my former Second Serve blog gives you an idea of what I felt like at the time.
In retrospect, I tried to go along as if everything was the same. I would confide in a close friend that I didn’t feel quite right. But I wanted to present a calm, confident face to the rest of the world.
Now I realize those other women I’d thought were so happy might have been doing the same thing I was. Covering up their emptiness with full calendars, their loneliness with aimless activity.
Don’t let malaise spiral into despair
Midlife malaise can start a downward spiral. While most people weather midlife malaise, there is an extremely serious side to midlife depression. Every year thousands of people take their own lives at a time when casual observers might have thought they “had it all.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), suicides among both genders are increasing. The suicide rate for women peaks between ages 45-64 at 9.8 deaths per thousand. This 2014 figure compares to 6.0 deaths per thousand in 1999. A 65% increase over 14 years, or a compound annual growth rate of nearly 4% per year.
Among men, suicide rates are highest over age 75 (38.8 deaths per thousand) but still much higher than women ages 45-64 (29.7 deaths per thousand).
Just as midlife malaise is real, so is midlife despair. Don’t let yourself spiral into the dark place. Ask for help before you think you need it – if you wait too long, it may be too late.
If you or someone you know may be struggling with thoughts of suicide, contact the
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, 1-800-273-8255. They’re available to help 24/7.
Happiness increases after age 50
A new book by Jonathan Rauch offers cause for optimism to weather midlife malaise. Rauch is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, contributing editor of The Atlantic and author of several books. He started investigating research about age and happiness when he experienced his own midlife slump. A slump that made no sense to him, as his career and personal life were doing well.
The result is a book called The Happiness Curve: Why Life Gets Better After 50*. In it, Rauch discusses a U-shaped curve identified by “happiness economics” researchers. They observed a similar phenomenon in over 80 different countries. Self-reported happiness and life satisfaction, high in your 20s, decline steadily through your 40s. But then they start to rise again and continue to rise throughout your life.
While curve metrics vary among specific surveys, the general trend is always U-shaped. Even after controlling for income, marital status, employment and so on, analysts found the data to be remarkably similar. Happiness follows a predictable curve across the adult lifespan. First down, then back up – with a continuing upward trajectory that lasts the rest of your life.
How to weather midlife malaise
Advice on how to weather midlife malaise takes many forms, just as a midlife slump looks different for different people. Psychologists and other experts recommend things like:
- Reflect/journal about your insights
- Discover (or rediscover) a creative activity
- Exercise more, eat healthier
- Address hormonal and physiological issues with lifestyle changes and medication as necessary
- Make a career pivot
- Volunteer in your community
- Spend time with friends and family
- Buy a red sportscar (just kidding!)
Sometimes the best you can do to weather midlife malaise is to take it a day at a time. You’ve been caring for other people for years. Now spend time taking care of yourself. My own experience of midlife malaise taught me you have to let go of a sense that you should be accomplishing something. Try your best to ease off self-criticism – quiet your inner voice of judgment.
It also helps to have a friend who’s going through her own midlife malaise. I had countless lunches with a close friend who was experiencing a similar, but different, midlife slump. We ate salad, drank Chardonnay and commiserated. Yes, ours were “first-world problems.” But they mattered to us, and it helped to know we weren’t alone in facing them.
It’s been several years, and both of us are doing better now. Although we still like to go for salad and Chardonnay. Some things don’t change.
Let nature teach you to weather midlife malaise
The natural world teems with examples of “the best way out is through.” So often new birth, renewed life and even transformation follow a period of dormancy. A quiet s,eason, when it appears that nothing is happening, can lead to something exciting and new.
For example, consider a mother bear who hibernates during the winter months. She sleeps in her den, living off her own fat resources and giving birth in the depth of winter. She emerges with her new baby in the spring, when the snow is melting and food is again available for foraging.
Or a hydrangea bush that changes through the seasons. In the winter you prune it down to a few sticks. Someone who doesn’t know might mistake the hydrangea for a plant that’s died and should be removed. But then the growing season starts again. Buds form on the sticks. They grow into leaves and then sprout their characteristic round blue and pink snowball blossoms.
Or a creeping caterpillar. Daily it eats its weight in milkweed, shedding its skin several times as it grows larger. It sloughs off its skin a final time, and that becomes its chrysalis. The creature hangs suspended from a leaf or branch. From outside the cocoon, you’d think nothing was going on. But after a couple of weeks of silence, a beautiful butterfly emerges.
Learn from your journey through midlife malaise
Images from nature, faith traditions and happiness research all point to a common thread. Life is always changing. You go through downs as well as ups. Particularly at midlife, you can expect a dip in happiness.
But like so many people before and after, you can weather midlife malaise. The best way out, sometimes the only way out, is through. The journey will teach you. You’ll become stronger and happier as you make your way through midlife. You’ll focus on the things that matter to you and learn to savor what’s important.
You may not always enjoy the journey, but don’t try to sidestep pain along the way. Allow yourself to experience the lows as well as the highs. It will build your resilience and deepen your character.
And take heart that once you weather midlife malaise, happiness and life satisfaction will start to climb. Now that result is a destination you can look forward to.
Join my journey through midlife
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