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What is a Midlife Crisis and Ways to Be More Upbeat

· Article

What is a Midlife Crisis and Ways to Be More Upbeat

“It’s that feeling you have when you see what you are doing as worthwhile, but life isn’t quite what it should be,” says Massachusetts Institute of Technology philosophy professor Kieran Setiya.

That’s just what Setiya himself experienced. “I was doing what I had always wanted to do,” he notes. But despite his love of teaching and writing, and the pleasures of a happy marriage and fatherhood, Setiya says it all seemed “hollow.”

Welcome to midlife. Whether it’s in your 30s, 40s, or 50s, this is when some people begin to realize that, success notwithstanding, youth is fleeting, opportunities are fewer, and you may be constrained by the very things you wished for.

Fortunately, Setiya’s response to his own midlife malaise included meditation, and writing Midlife: A Philosophical Guide, a “nontraditional” self-help book.

“I’m not a mental health professional,” he explains. “I’m a philosopher seeking a better life.”

Philosophers have addressed the issues of well-being — though not specifically midlife —for more than 2,000 years. Plato’s “Republic” concerns the role of justice in the best human life. Aristotle’sNicomachean Ethics promotes the idea that a good life is one of virtuous activity done with reason.

“The questions we associate with midlife … questions about value and meaning in life … are existential ones,” states Setiya.

The term midlife crisis wasn’t coined until the 1960s, but Setiya doesn’t think what most people face in their middle years is an actual crisis. Rather, it’s more a sense of feeling weighed down by the responsibilities common to this time of life, such as caring for both parents and children, combined with today’s goal-oriented lifestyle, and compounded by social media, where everyone’s life looks better than yours. (Don’t be fooled. It’s not.)

The media is also partially responsible, Setiya observes, with its idealization of youth.


You may not avoid the midlife blahs, but there are ways to reframe them for a more upbeat outlook, Setiya suggests:

  1. Instead of lamenting that your options in life may be narrowing, appreciate the things in life worth doing, and look at what you’ve already done. “It’s inevitable that no matter how much you do in life, there will still be things you don’t get to do,” comments Setiya.
  2. Examine the mistakes you’ve made or the misfortunes you’ve encountered, and ask yourself how your life was shaped by them. “Did you make a stupid mistake, but as a result meet your spouse?” Setiya asks. “Appreciate what life’s events have brought you.”
  3. Recognize the difference between “telic” and “atelic” activities. Telic is derived from “telos,” the Greek word for goal. Telic activities, Setiya explains, are goal-oriented, such as finishing that big work project or earning a coveted promotion. These activities, while pleasurable at the moment, don’t necessarily result in long-term satisfaction because you’ll soon be on to the next goal. Atelic activities, on the other hand, are done purely for pleasure, like talking with friends, taking a walk, or in Setiya’s case, meditating. “These activities don’t have a point,” he says. And that’s just the point of doing them.

Setiya tries to practice what he preaches.

“I’ve been making a shift between my former type A, goal-driven self to appreciating what’s happening right now,” he shares. “But intellectual recognition is one thing,” he acknowledges, “and actually making the shift is another. It’s a work in progress.”

For inspiration, we recommend reading these four midlife busting memoirs from women who rocked midlife.

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Photo by Tatiana Diakova

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