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
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. 
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
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
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.
 David Blanchflower and Andrew Oswald (2008) Is well-being
U-shaped over the lifecycle? Social Science and Medicine, 66(6),
Take care of your body, Find ways to bounce back