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Crisis? What crisis?

20 Jun 2011 | Sarah Dale

Middle-age tends to be a deeply unflattering label and one that I vehemently resisted for some years. When I turned 45, however, I found myself (greatly to my surprise) embracing the concept quite enthusiastically after all. The accumulated experience (and increased confidence as a result) is actually pretty liberating.

It's a stage of life when many of us have a lot on our plates. We might have demanding jobs, children, ageing relatives, voluntary roles and often unsettling levels of change and uncertainty about the future. Add possible financial and health worries to that and it's no wonder that life can feel hard going and exhausting. If the pressures reach boiling point, the plunge into a mid-life crisis can be sudden (and maybe quite tempting if it means exciting and radical changes).

Is it a time of life when people describe themselves as happy? Sadly, no it isn't, on the whole. Studies across the world have found that happiness tends to show a U-shaped curve over our lifetimes, dipping in our middle years. The peak of depression for men and women in the UK for example has been shown to occur at age 44 on average. [1]

The pressures are very real for many people. As a result, it's easy to slip into living a life on hold in some way, waiting until the mortgage is paid off, the children are grown or our holiday arrives before we think we will feel happier.

As an occupational psychologist, I hear many versions of this mid-life experience from interesting, energetic but often tired (and sometimes overwhelmed) people who are living life at full-tilt on many fronts. Their careers are often at a critical stage where the responsibilities are significant but it may not be clear how the decade or two to retirement will pan out. There are often a lot of calls on their time and energy outside work too. Their own well-being and happiness frequently comes fairly low down on the agenda.

The oxygen mask principle

In planes we are urged to put our own oxygen masks on first before trying to help others, even our own children, in the event of an emergency. This can go against our instincts, but of course makes logical sense. If you can't breathe, you're not much help to anyone else for very long.

I believe we need to treat our own physical and mental well-being in the same way. This is not another cry for "me-time" which is a phrase I don't like. It's not about hanging out in expensive spas (nice though that may be).

But it is a recognition that as a pressured middle-aged, middle-generation, middle-career person, the chances are you spend a great deal of time and energy on other people's well-being. In the process, it is likely that you neglect your own, whether in physical ways such as sleep or nutrition, or psychologically in maintaining a healthy perspective on life.

Running on empty, you are likely to be less useful to others at work or at home (although you might not realise this is happening) and there is a much reduced chance of experiencing moments of real happiness in these messy middle years.

For me, well-being is the foundation of happiness. To misquote John Lennon, "happiness is what happens while you're busy making other plans".

Our well-being needs nurturing and usually won't happen by accident, or certainly not in a twenty-first century Western lifestyle. We need to consciously plan ways to look after our well-being; it's our psychological oxygen mask. I believe it's a responsibility, not an optional luxury. It's not the same thing, to my mind, as striving for happiness.

If our well-being is good, we'll be in a much better position to recognise and enjoy the happy moments when they appear. We'll also be better placed to create more happiness in the world around us, whether at home, at work or in our communities. Even if we're in the dip of middle-age.

(And if you really want to know, I'm now 46. At least I should be on the upswing of the curve by now).


Sarah Dale is a chartered occupational psychologist and author of Keeping Your Spirits Up which was published this month.


[1] David Blanchflower and Andrew Oswald (2008) Is well-being U-shaped over the lifecycle? Social Science and Medicine, 66(6), 1733-1749


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