Erikka Askeland: Mid-life crisis means no monkeying about

Erikka Askeland
Erikka Askeland
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I’m probably just about due for my mid-life crisis. When the phrase was coined by Canadian psychoanalyst Elliott Jaques in 1965, the age of the time when an abrupt change of thinking occurred was about 35.

It is a testament to the fact that, as we live longer, the time of life when men buy a motorcycle and women discover Buddhism tends now to be in the late 40s, give or take a decade.

It was often thought that this stage – often now called a “transition” rather than a crisis – was something that happened to rich westerners, particularly as it traditionally involves the acquisition of red sports cars. But a recent study of apes has revealed that feeling morose about life and what we have achieved thus far goes much deeper and may even be an evolutionary strategy.

A recently published study of 508 apes undertaken in zoos and animal sanctuaries revealed that our close evolutionary relatives, chimpanzees and orangutans, also experience this dip. The authors of the study – which was written by Dr Alexander Weiss, a senior lecturer at the University of Edinburgh’s school philosophy, psychology and language sciences – noted how chimps follow the same u-shaped happiness curve in their lives as humans do.

The human pattern tends to go like this. When we are young, we are happy. But then there is a dip – marked by dissatisfaction, irritability, a realisation that the job is pointless and a sudden intolerance for the way our spouse chews food. But then things get better – the curve goes back up – and satisfied pensioners retire to their caravans emblazoned with a bumper sticker that states: “We are spending our children’s inheritance”.

The nadir in the u-shape is when we can change. My sister, who was always a bit precocious, had hers early. She was in her late 30s when she chucked in her job, registered for a course at university and got a tattoo. Evidence that the man in my life has come through his crisis is the leather jacket he acquired as he entered his 40s.

And while most people intuitively get the fact that many people of a certain age face some sort of reckoning, no-one is sure what causes it, while others question whether it is just something made up to disguise a sudden display of inexplicable behaviour.

But what the chimps tell us is that while the mid-life panic isn’t just rueing what we have never had, it is a chance to make the most of our resources in the time we have left.

As Weiss scientifically understates it: “This period, middle-age, may be a prime time to improve your situation.” And he should know – another of his studies is reassuringly titled Emotionally Stable, Intelligent Men Live Longer: The Vietnam Experience Study Cohort.

The study is a sign that a heavy-going process of coming face to face with one’s identity is a necessary one, and one that is shared with our earliest ancestors. If it was just a mere indulgence, it would be harder to accept the damage that a mid-life crisis can cause.

Not everyone has to pull a Reggie Perrin, where they leave their clothes on the beach in an effort to disappear from the dull routine that their lives have become. For some it can be benign – a new hair-do, or telling the boss where to shove it and starting up a small business. Some take it to extremes – consider how many 40-somethings that shake themselves out of middle age spread and start taking up triathlons. But for others, it can break up marriages or be marked by depression, heavy drinking or reckless behaviour. It is what you do with it that counts.

As for me, I will embrace the crisis when it comes, in whatever form it does. (Note to self – don’t tell the boss to “shove it” until you win the lottery.)

As for my sister, she now has a high-flying career in a field that she loves and met her now husband in the university town that she escaped to. Although I’m not sure she’s quite as proud of the tattoo. As for his leather jacket – I have to admit I don’t really like it. But I am loathe to tell him, because over ten years later he still adopts a necessary air of danger about him when he wears it. And it is probably preferable to him taking up motorcycling.