Did you wake up this morning and leap out of bed? Or turn your face to the wall? It probably depends if you’re under – or over – 45.
New research shows that the midlife crisis actually hits people as young as 35, with those in their 30s and 40s unhappier than any other age group.
Of course we can blame 24-hour global culture. Constant emails on mobile phones don’t help. Many respondents between 35-44 admitted to not having enough time for family or friends because of work commitments. Counsellors have been wheeled out to warn us of an impending social catastrophe. Right-wing pundits have mentioned all the usual suspects – women going out to work, single parents, uppity career women.
But actually, I can’t see the “midlife stress at 35” story as wholly negative. Some important taboos are being exploded. A fifth of those between 35 and 44 said they had suffered from depression or felt lonely, compared with 13 per cent of people aged above 65.
Let’s be honest: many happy, coupled-up people feel profound loneliness at times. Being popular (“5000 Facebook friends and counting”) isn’t always ideal. You may have lots of transitory friendships rather than proper close alliances. The important thing is to establish the difference between aloneness (good, chosen) and loneliness (when social isolation is real unhappiness).
Your mid-30s are when people feel that there is a gulf between their aspirations and their reality. Perhaps you fear you will never own a home, are saddled with debt or have just ended a love affair. According to experts in positive psychology, the unhappiest age for a woman is 37; for a man, 41.
It’s not hard to work out why. For many women, there is that terrible gnawing obsession – do I have children now or later? Go it alone or settle? For men, there is a scary reckoning. Does their job reflect the kind of man they thought they’d be?
Midlife is more testing than any teenage phase. But there is also good news. Life really does get better from 45 onwards. Those devastating decisions are made – or have dropped away. The phase of confusion is over.
You may have children and a partner or live as part of an urban tribe. Neither is a failure. Best of all, people are telling the truth. In your 20s, everyone is so competitive that you’d rather die than admit failure. Now there’s nothing to hide.
Looking back, I was no good at being young. I fell in love with avoidant men. The fashionable friends I chased were out of reach. Let’s say I had a high tolerance for humiliation.
But in your mid-40s, you walk into a room and think: this is the best I’m going to be. The jawline is less taut, the waistline less defined. But life is less of a mystery. Strategies learned at work turn out to be useful in love, and vice versa. And you won’t put up with nonsense. You even have better sex (however infrequently) because you understand that mercurial thing – chemistry.
Trust me – get the midlife crisis over as early as possible. Weep tears of disappointment. Rail, moan, consult the oracle.
In Finland at midsummer something rather wonderful happens. Wearing garlands of flowers, you are invited to cast a midsummer spell – to clear the mind and soul. You write down the “rubbish” cluttering your life (bad relationships, work stress, guilt) on a piece of paper and burn it in a fire.
It’s true that 35-plus are the criminal years. Not because we’re work-obsessed and self-indulgent (although we are) but because it’s a rite of passage. The trick is to hold your nerve – and then hold it some more. Real freedom is just round the corner.