This week, Savvy Psychologist Dr. Ellen Hendriksen channels her best Talking Heads and asks, on behalf of every middle-aged adult, “How did I get here?” Plus, why time seems to fly as we get older.
The midlife crisis, while not an actual diagnosis, is enough of a cultural phenomenon to instantly conjure images of balding guys in impulsively purchased red sports cars, or women of a certain age getting nipped and tucked.
And while not everyone has a wine-soaked midlife crisis accessorized with an Ashley Madison account, there is certainly developmental evidence that middle adulthood, defined as approximately ages 40-65, can be a difficult stage.
What is it about midlife that’s so challenging? Last week in our episode about the quarter-life crisis, we talked about Erik Erikson’s psychosocial stages of development. And guess what—there’s a challenge for middle adulthood as well. It’s the seventh of the eight life stages and it’s called Generativity versus Stagnation. As the name implies, the challenge is to be productive—to give back through a career, be active in our community, raise good kids to send forth into the world, or otherwise care for those around us. Anything that benefits others falls into the Generativity bucket.
Stagnation, on the other hand, is being self-absorbed, taking more than you give, or choosing not to contribute (therefore, health problems that keep you from giving don’t count against you). Stagnation, predictably, leads to feeling disconnected or alienated, which can set the stage for crisis.
But you don’t have to have been navel-gazing for a couple of decades to have a crisis. It’s also around this age that kids start to leave the nest, which may leave middle-adulthood types feeling irrelevant or unnecessary, particularly if they stayed home to raise their children. Likewise, you may be giving back actively, but still have regrets, like not completing school or pursuing a dream.
Or, a midlife crisis may not be related to feelings of regret or irrelevance at all. It might be sparked by loss—it’s at this age that losing a parent becomes more common, which sets us up to feel like we’re next in line on the generational escalator to eternity. This new salience of mortality often makes us feel like we have to kick things up a notch, or at least to pay more attention to our one and precious life, which seems to be flying by at breakneck speed.
This phenomenon—time speeding up as we age—isn’t new. The founder of American psychology himself, William James, wondered about the increasing speed of life all the way back in 1890. In his classic book, Principles of Psychology, he wrote that our perception of time is affected by two things: first, what we do with the time, and second, whether we’re in the thick of things or looking back through the rearview window. To quote, he says,
In general, a time filled with varied and interesting experiences seems short in passing, but long as we look back. On the other hand, a tract of time empty of experiences seems long in passing, but in retrospect short. A week of travel and sight-seeing may subtend an angle more like three weeks in the memory; and a month of sickness hardly yields more memories than a day.
OK, in short, when you’re bored, time seems to crawl by. But look back on that same time and it feels short precisely because not much happened.
On the other hand, when you’re busy or engaged in something, time flies by. But look back and whatever you did at the beginning of the day, week, or month seems eons ago.