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The midlife crisis: Fact vs fiction

The midlife crisis differs to its media and cultural depiction.

It’s not recognised as a real medical condition. There is no cure or exact medicine for it. Some people even believe it’s just a social construct. We all know the term midlife crisis, but what actually is it and how do we know if it’s affecting us?

A midlife crisis is defined by Lifeskills Australia as “a transition of identity and self-confidence that can occur in middle-aged individuals, typically 45–64 years old”. It normally entails feelings of sadness, lack of confidence and regret.

Film and television frequently turn the midlife crisis into a more comedic or exaggerated experience. Popular movies such as Crazy, Stupid, Love and American Beauty romanticise this concept by showing protagonists changing the way they dress, talk to women and experience an overall carelessness in their attitude to life. Perhaps the most cliché image of a midlife crisis is the 50-year-old man buying a new sports car.

Tom Wood, a self-proclaimed movie addict and reviewer for FilmInk has largely seen the midlife crisis portrayed as comedic.

“It seems like 90 percent of movies that feature a midlife crisis theme are comedies,” Wood tells upstart. “Even a movie such as About Schmidt which is more end of life crisis shows Warren Schmidt, the main character, giving up when his wife dies, dressing poorly and not washing. It’s quite a sad picture but is cleverly transformed to be funny.”

Wood says has never really thought what a midlife crisis actually could be like for a person experiencing it in real life. His knowledge of it all stems from film.

“I never learnt about it (midlife crisis) in school or see anything about it in the news,” he says. “I think most people’s understanding is from culture rather than science or psychology. This is 40, American Beauty, these are all big movies based on the midlife crisis. Breaking Bad, the biggest series in the world, is even built around it, and that is clearly an exaggeration on the topic.”

In real life, the midlife crisis differs to its media depiction. In film, it often can be a single event such as a death, being fired or having a relationship end. In real life multiple little things can add up overtime to make middle age difficult: a stagnating marriage, physical aging, lack of fulfilment in work can overwhelm people in this period of life.

Professor Susan Moore is a social psychologist researcher at Swinburne University and labels the midlife crisis as more “transition period” than dramatic event.

“Like in most life course transitions there are likely to be mood swings and a period of confusion about how to proceed,” she tells upstart. “Dissatisfaction with work and irritation with family, friends or work colleagues may occur because the person feels trapped and can’t see their way through to a satisfying solution.”

“Most transition states including this one, involve experimentation. People might trying out new roles and ways of being, ranging from minor changes such as a new hairdo to major ones such as changing careers or life partners.”

Some individuals, Moore says, may go too far in this process and self-destruct, sometimes coming close to acting out like the characters in the movies.

“Some people ‘act out’, overdo alcohol, have affairs, buy sports cars or jewellery they can’t afford and others can become difficult to work or live with because of their mood swings,” she says. “In extreme cases it can lead to depression, which is very serious.”

If someone does feel like they are stuck in a midlife crisis, Moore says a range of things can be done to work through it. If it is seriously affecting someone’s mental state then seeing a therapist can be beneficial, especially if depression or other mental illness is a result.

Professor Moore believes the people who experience a sense of a midlife crisis eventually come to terms with whatever is bothering them, learning to move on and enjoy life.

“For most though, the mid-life crisis will resolve, one way or another, as the individual either comes to terms with their current condition or develops and adapts to life-style changes.”

Photo | Photo of man driving a convertible vehicle by Adrien Olichon available HERE and used under Creative Commons license. This photo has not been modified.

Article | Aidan Ginn is a third year Bachelor of Journalism student at La Trobe University.

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