Magazine article Work & Family Life

Forget the Myths.Middle Age Is a Good Place to Be

Magazine article Work & Family Life

Forget the Myths.Middle Age Is a Good Place to Be

Article excerpt

Are middle-age baby boomers having an identity crisis? Just the opposite, it seems. A research project, now in its 20th year, has found that Americans in midlife-between ages 40 and 60 especially-have a greater sense of well-being about family, work and life than at any other time in their lives.

"It's not the period of high anxiety we've been led to believe," says psychologist Orville G. Brim, PhD, who led the initial phase of the Midlife Development in the U.S. study. "On balance, the sense we all have is that midlife is the best place to be."

Myth of the midlife crisis

Dr. Brim and his team have challenged stereotypes about midlife crises such as the empty-nest syndrome and menopausal distress. Other researchers are looking at stress factors unique to midlife, signals that could help predict a healthy middle age, and early signs of cognitive decline. They too are reporting mostly good news.

To begin with, the notion that most people go through a midlife crisis lives on in the public imagination, but it is not supported by research data. Fewer than one in four participants in the Midlife Development study reported a "crisis" and, of this group, the majority tied it to specific events that had nothing to do with aging or anxiety about aging.

Younger adults experience more frequent day-to-day stressors (such as fights with spouse, work deadlines) while middle-age adults report more "overload" stressors (juggling too many activities at one time). This isn't surprising since many older boomers are part of a sandwich generation that is caring for children at home as well as older relatives.

But researchers say that these stressors still don't add up to a midlife crisis.

On the plus side

Middle-age adults report having a greater sense of control over different parts of their lives. Many have come through bad marriages and career struggles. Their kids are grown. They enjoy being "empty nesters." And a raft of new books and blogs encourage them to revel in their role-Empty House, Full Mind, Refeathering the Empty Nest and Fun Without Dick and Jane, to name a few.

Many boomers say they're in better shape than they were 10 years ago, and some say they're in the best shape of their lives physically, mentally and financially.

Midlife adults score higher on measures of cognitive functioning than they did when they were 25They showed improvements in verbal and numerical ability, reasoning and memory. The only decline was in perceptual speed-for example, the ability to quickly decide if two zip codes are identical.

On the search for meaning

Researchers also shot down the myth that when people hit their 40s, they feel a sudden desire to find new meaning in life. In her book The Search for Fulfillment, Dr. Susan K. Whitbourne explains that we gradually evolve in our values, beliefs and insights as we go through life. …

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