The midlife crisis is serious, and can even be dangerous. For some, the problem is not so much lack of motivation but over-motivation, as they try to prove they are still young by starting an affair or blowing their money on a sports car. For others, however, the midlife crisis leaves them feeling jaded and apathetic; since the best years are gone, they reason, there is no point in doing anything.
As the American comedian Louis C. K. once observed, there is something inherently funny about an unhappy middle-aged man. Even T. S. Eliot's famous poem Prufrock, about a timid, balding 30-something lamenting his fate, seems comic rather than tragic. And such mocking and contempt can be seen everywhere. For example, even 40th and 50th birthday cards frequently allude to stress, hair loss, diminished libido, and the end of physical attractiveness.
Of course, it could be argued that this is a healthy way of coping. So long as you can laugh at something, it loses its power. That may be true, but the midlife crisis should not be underestimated. Men in particular are often driven to commit idiotic, self-destructive acts, from blowing their savings to quitting a good job. And the midlife crisis often brings depression, anxiety, and insomnia in its wake.
Obviously, people experience the crisis in different ways, but in essence it means a shift in perspective. The individual feels that life is no longer ahead of him but something happening right now, and yet here and now he feels trapped or lost. The realization may dawn slowly or suddenly. To make matters worse, the middle-aged often find time seeming to speed up as well.
Imagine a man in his early 40s with two small children. Turning 40 was a shock and, though he pretended to find the jokes about bald patches funny, he didn't feel like laughing. So this is it, he thinks, I'm not going anywhere any more. In the past, he was driven by plans and ambitions: to open a restaurant, write a novel, backpack through India. Though often unhappy in his 20s and 30s, he comforted himself with the thought that "someday" he would do all those things and more. At college, he sat up all night drinking cheap wine and talking with friends about the places they'd visit and the adventures they'd have. And now here he is, stuck in a boring, unfulfilling job, looks fading fast, weighed down with a mortgage and struggling to hold his marriage together.
At first a sort of panic sets in, and he tells his wife they need to go out more, take more interesting vacations, and so on. But these plans come to nothing. He slips back into the old routine, and the months fly by. How can he be closing in on 50? It hardly seems like yesterday that he met her. Back then even 30 seemed distant and impossible. When he thinks back to his younger self it feels like another person. The world seemed so different then. He felt passionate, energetic – and immortal. Everything seemed more vivid and intense, and it seemed to really matter; now nothing does. The world is stripped of color and meaning; it is flat, dull, even absurd.
It is no coincidence that the sorts of feelings described above resemble depression, which is why the midlife crisis really ought to be taken more seriously. In 2013, for example, there were 6,233 recorded suicides in the U.K. That figure includes everyone, of both sexes, from children to 100-year-olds. And yet of that total, 2,180, more than a third, were men aged between 40 and 59! Unfortunately, depression in itself wipes out motivation. Anyone who has ever lived with, or cared for, a depressive will have heard the words "what's the point?" more than once.
During a midlife crisis, people often feel overwhelmed and struggle to complete the most basic tasks. This may be in part because organization goes to pieces, while others begin to question why they even bother. Think of walking across a tightrope. People succeed because they do not hesitate or think – they just do it. If they paused to consider how and why, they'd wobble and fall.
Others find that they are simultaneously bored and unable to focus. But the sort of boredom people experience during a midlife crisis is different to that of a child stuck indoors on a rainy day. It isn't a matter of not being able to think of something fun; it runs deeper than that. Perhaps "jaded" would be a better word, since "bored" implies the individual has tried everything. The world seems, as Hamlet puts it, "weary," "flat" and "stale." And yet the man or woman concerned may also find it impossible to settle or focus; they are jaded but irritable, flat but jumpy, restless but distracted.
When trying to pull yourself out of a midlife crisis, begin with physical exercise. But remember, not all forms of exercise are equally beneficial. For example, the middle-aged often sign up to run marathons, maybe with another middle-aged friend. This, they assume, will not only get them into shape but will provide a goal and a sense of achievement. That may be true, but it also demands a great deal from the body. Running 26 miles on concrete is extreme even for a 20-year-old, let alone someone in their fifties.
Begin with your diet. Cut out junk food, reduce sugar and salt, and fill your shopping basket with fruit and vegetables. You could also have a "raw day" once or twice a week, where you eat nothing but raw, unprocessed vegetables, fruit, nuts, seeds, and purified water. And begin an exercise regimen. But make your exercise regular and light. Many stressed, overworked middle-aged people get into a panic and go crazy at the weekend, running for miles or lifting heavy weights at the gym. This can do more harm than good.
Perhaps the single biggest task faced by those undergoing a midlife crisis is updating their view of the world and, crucially, their view of themselves. To put it bluntly, you must accept that you are now middle-aged and stop clinging onto youth. It can be pitiful to watch a 40-something squeezed into his designer T-shirt, flirting with someone half his age and clearly making a fool of himself. Of course, that does not mean you must wear a cardigan and spend your evenings in front of the TV. There is nothing wrong with dancing the night away in a club, dyeing your hair pink, or buying a Harley Davidson! The problems arise when such behavior flows from denial, from trying to hold on to a life that has gone.
The key, as so often with mental health, is authenticity. People in middle-age often have regrets: wishing they'd had more fun, travelled more, been less cautious, chosen a different career, even married a different partner. Rather than facing up to this, however, accepting what's gone and developing new, realistic goals, they cling on. Rationally, they know it is too late to have their children with a different man or go away to a different college, but subconsciously they hope to go back and put things right. And they often hope to please, defeat or win over people who may no longer even be in their life. Stop fighting battles that have long since finished. Your High School bully is gone, and so, perhaps have the parents, friends, or relatives who once made you feel like a loser.
Next, consider ways of reinventing yourself. For example, could you move away? This needn't mean running from your problems. Many middle-aged people still live in the neighborhood in which they were raised, sometimes even in the family home. And that means regularly passing their old school and bumping into old neighbors and friends (or enemies). This can make it very difficult to move on and update. Instead, people feel themselves stagnating. Obviously, a move isn't always practical: many middle-aged people have responsibilities. But if it is possible, it may be worth considering. You wouldn't be the first middle-aged person to find a new lease of life by moving to a different city or country.
If this isn't possible, there are plenty of other ways to reinvent yourself. The great authority here is the Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung, who once wrote, "The afternoon of life is just as full of meaning as the morning; only, its meaning and purpose are different." For the young, the great motivations tend to be money, career, sex, and popularity. And young people are more impressed by surface dazzle. For Jung, the task of the middle-aged is to go within, to, as T. S. Eliot put it, "be explorers" of their inner world.
Jung, of course, had something specific in mind. He believed we all inherit a collective unconscious made up of archetypes, that appear in dreams and hallucinations. To Jung, the Individuation process was the purpose of life – gradually refining what is essentially and innately you and becoming what you really are. Others might prefer exploring Buddhism or the nature mysticism of poets like Wordsworth and Coleridge.
Few things will pull you out of midlife stagnation like learning and creating. And try to bring a sense of structure and direction to this. For example, print off Harold Bloom's famous list of the greatest books and make it your mission to read as many as you can, ticking them off as you go. Or maybe try to read a novel from every country in the world. It may also be worth taking a course in something totally new – something outside your comfort zone, like Japanese or Quantum Mechanics. Above all, try a new, creative pursuit, like Spanish guitar or writing Haikus. Novelty and fresh challenges will revive you.
Getting motivated during a midlife crisis can be difficult. But this is often because people allow time to weigh them down. Regrets about the past and fears about the future loom ever larger. Focus instead on the only thing that's real – life here and now.