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Why We Need to Reframe the So-Called Midlife Crisis

If you’re a man in his late 40s, I’ve got bad news for you: you’re miserable. That is, you’re likely at the most miserable point of your life. According to numerous experts who study the topic, a man’s happiness bottoms out right around the time he is 47 or 48. It’s in these years when the blend of caring for aging relatives as well as his own kids, the stress of a career with more and more demands but years to go until retirement, his own slowly aging body, and myriad other factors combine into a foul brew that saps the gentleman’s joy as he stoically quaffs it down.

But there’s good news: It gets better. Much better. Most men report their 60s as their happiest decade, so the so-called midlife crisis that commences with that nadir of mirth need not be feared. In fact, with a re-framing, the midlife years can be a time of triumph.

middle age man surfing
Yoshiyoshi Hirokawa/Getty Images

Did you stand by your partner, raise the kids, maintain a home, and establish a career? Sir, you deserve a sweet car, distant travels, the pricier Scotch — all of it. Why is it considered a crisis to want your life to rock? The bigger crisis is caused by you not taking those actions that can get you feeling like you’re back in the saddle.

“Mid-life can serve as a nice kick in the pants, motivation to finally do those things you’ve been delaying,” says Dr. Matt Deaton, Ph.D. in social and political philosophy and applied ethics, and author of the several books, including Year of the Fighter: Lessons from My Midlife Crisis Adventure.

Deaton faced his own period of self-doubt by getting in the ring. Literally. He had dreamed since childhood of trying his hands (and feet) in a professional fight, and shortly before age 40, he finally put on a pair of gloves, headgear, and shinguards and squared up for his first kickboxing match. Fighting put this ethics professor back in control of his own life, but you don’t need to go full Rocky to make meaningful moves that will restore your happiness, sense of self-worth, and eagerness to try new things or get back to those that once brought you joy.

“[There are] all sorts of reason to relish midlife,” Deaton explains. “You’re still healthy enough to pursue athletic adventures, have more disposable income (usually), and better know-how to get things done.” And also, now is the time, because time is never coming back. Deaton writes in Year of the Fighter:

“When you’re a kid, you assume the serious-faced adults have all the answers. Then you make it to twenty, and reason that the thirtysomethings must be hoarding the wisdom. ‘Thirty-five. I bet that’s when it comes…’ By the time you hit 40, you have to concede that we’re all full of crap – bustling along as if our careers and mortgages really are that important, talking about politics and parenting and history as if we really know what Aleppo is or how Bitcoins work.

Surprise: everyone’s faking it. Even the high-paid talking heads with Ivy League degrees. Even lawyers. Even me. We all have your same confusions, your same doubts. Some are just better at hiding it.

I say this so you know you’re not alone – so you don’t think, ‘Maybe this guy could pull off a cool, life-affirming adventure, but that’s just beyond me.’ Whatever … anyone can. You just need a mustard seed of courage. For that, reflect on how short our time here really is, and how our current life season will not last forever.”

Now, of course, pivoting from crisis mode to kickass mode is easier said than done. The aging parents and moody teens between which you are likely bookended and both of which you are potentially funding can be legitimate sources of stress. Work is potentially at its hardest point as you have taken on more and more responsibility yet still likely have people above you breathing down your neck. You may be making more money but life isn’t getting any cheaper.

But along with the greater responsibility and pressure so too comes the wisdom, experience, and perspective you will have gained by now. By midlife, you know who you are, what you’re capable of, and, with room for some exceptions, you know what you want. If what you want is a Corvette — if you really think an awesome car will make you feel like an awesome you — then get one. Maybe not tomorrow; maybe set yourself up a two- or three-year timeline during which you set aside money for the purchase. By this age, you have the patience to wait a bit longer and the wherewithal to make a plan and make it happen. Also, by now you know time moves fast anyway.

middle age man fitness fighting class
Thomas Barwick/Getty Images

Hate your job? You still have enough time for another act, maybe even two. Don’t quit until you’ve got another one lined up, but don’t grind yourself down for another two goddamn decades if you’re not happy with what you do. You could even squeeze in one more degree if you wanted. (My grandfather reached the rank of Brigadier General in the Air Force then went to law school after retiring and practiced for years, for one awesome example. He also flew bombers for a while in the early 1940s until he got shot out of the sky and spending some time as a “guest of the Reich,” so he may have had a leg up on the whole perspective thing, to be fair.)

Out of shape? Get in shape. Make a goal, whether it’s climbing a mountain, running a race, or just getting fit enough to shoot some hoops or 18 holes. You don’t have to get yourself into kickboxing form, but you owe it to your current self, your older self, and to your family to maintain some level of physical fitness, which can still very much be achieved at midlife. No excuses on this one.

“Our broader life is made up of mini-lives, with select opportunities available only during each,” says Dr. Matt Deaton. Midlife may be the last mini-life where you can take meaningful steps that will improve the rest of your life, which may well still have three or four decades during which you can rock. You can’t get in shape when your 80. You won’t start boxing, rock climbing, or surfing, either. And you probably won’t buy that sports car then, either.

Get out there and crush it now.

Steven John
Steven John is a writer and journalist living just outside New York City, by way of 12 years in Los Angeles, by way of…
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