DUCKWORTH: I just want you to know that the future is rosy.
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DUCKWORTH: I’m Angela Duckworth.
DUBNER: I’m Stephen Dubner.
DUCKWORTH + DUBNER: And you’re listening to No Stupid Questions.
Today on the show: What is the likelihood that you’ll experience a midlife crisis?
DUCKWORTH: I thought my career would’ve turned out better than this. I thought I’d be closer to my children.
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DUBNER: Angela, a question today from a listener whose name is Rebecca Bayzie, who lives in Cleveland, Ohio. She writes, “Hi, Angela and Stephen!” Exclamation point. “Here’s a question that I grapple with at random, especially since being in my mid-30s.” Do you remember your mid-30s, Angela?
DUCKWORTH: Oh, my gosh. I was like, “Rebecca, the email writer, is so young.” I vaguely remember my mid-30s.
DUBNER: So, Rebecca writes about encountering certain situations in which “I believe a midlife crisis is to blame,” and she wants to know: “Are they real — midlife crises?” Rebecca continues, “I am married with three kids. My husband and I both work full-time. And as you can imagine, we are very much busy keeping up with the everyday demands of child-rearing,” et cetera, et cetera. “The following,” she writes, “are some examples of times when I have thought, ‘Midlife crisis?’ One: When I decided to get a strange part of my ear pierced with my 19-year-old niece. Two: When I very strongly considered getting subwoofers in my car. And three: When I bought a pack of cigarettes — I have never been a smoker,” she writes, “because I thought it’d be cool to have one while driving. I guess my question is: Could these things be related to the fact that I have consciously — and, I think, subconsciously — felt substantially older in the past couple of years? Am I trying,” she writes, “in the small ways that my current lifestyle allows, to feel young again? I have had to start having my hair highlighted to cover the grays, and I haven’t been ID-ed when buying wine in years. Sad.” She finishes her email with a sad-face. So, Angela, do you feel Rebecca is old enough to have what might be called a “midlife crisis”? Let’s start there.
DUCKWORTH: How about we start with: I want to be best friends with Rebecca, because this is the most adorable email. It’s, like, truly charming. I do want to tell Rebecca that it can’t be “midlife” unless she’s planning to only live ‘til she’s 70. Life expectancy has increased dramatically over the last century. I mean, “midlife” literally used to be, you know, when you’re 20. Now, of course, midlife — I say this as a 52-year-old, I don’t plan to live until I’m 104 — but most scientists consider it age 40 to 60.
DUBNER: Can I add one caveat, though, to the life-expectancy story, which is truly one of the greatest miracles of humankind?
DUCKWORTH: Right? It’s huge!
DUBNER: I believe, in the 20th century, life expectancy in the U.S. doubled, which is crazy.
DUCKWORTH: Nearly doubled, I think, is more accurate — but let’s say “doubled.” Rounding up to the double.
DUBNER: And that’s never going to happen again — unless something really wild occurs in the science of longevity, which it might, so, I shouldn’t say “never,” but: one fact that, I think, gets hidden in that bigger statistic, is that it is true that life expectancy rose by a crazy amount, but the biggest driver of that was the decline in maternal and child death.
DUCKWORTH: But not the only driver — just so you know.
DUBNER: Not the only one. People still died of cholera, and dysentery, and heart failure — all that stuff. And the reason I bring that up in this context is: even, let’s say, 100 years ago, or 200 years ago, once you made it to — let’s say — 30, the odds that you were going to make it to 70 or 80 were pretty decent — not that much worse than they are today. And so I just do wonder if, really, what we consider the age of the midlife crisis is that different today than it was in previous generations?
DUCKWORTH: I think things have changed, for sure, because I looked into this. I had to write a commencement speech for the graduating classes of my university, University of Pennsylvania — the ones who had missed their graduations because of the pandemic. And I wanted to make a point about how they had a fairly long time to live relative to people who had graduated from the same university 100 or 200 years ago. And I looked up the research, and I will just say that, while infant mortality accounts for the large share of those additional years, statistically, it’s also true that, at every decade of life, our expectation for how much longer we have to live is greater than for people in the past. It’s not just infant mortality. So, I think, in a very real sense, midlife has shifted.
DUBNER: And, because of that shift, you’re saying Rebecca probably isn’t at a midlife crisis.
DUCKWORTH: She’s precocious for having a midlife crisis. Again, most scientists think about it as the 40s and 50s, because that’s more like midlife in the era where we’re living longer. But look, Rebecca, charmingly, is doing a lot of things that are — at least in a cliché sense — the kinds of things that people do in a midlife crisis.
DUBNER: Okay. So, tell us what you can about the modern definition of the “midlife crisis” — where it came from, how long we’ve been paying attention to it, and so on — before we get into what I really want to know, and I think Rebecca probably wants to know, too, is: What is the prevalence of the midlife crisis, and what is the intensity? But before we even get to those, let’s just hear about how recently it’s been focused on and who helped define it.
DUCKWORTH: So, the term “midlife crisis,” it’s widely believed to be attributed to a particular psychoanalyst named Elliott Jaques. And we’re talking mid-20th century — 1960s. And Elliott Jaques was treating, particularly, artists. And he was finding that many of his artist clients went through kind of a depression in their 30s — a period where they were not as creative, not as productive, and were having sadness and inability to enjoy life. Now, again, that’s quite some time ago, when life expectancy was shorter. His thought, being a psychoanalyst, was that, really, there was something going on with this midlife change that was important to think about. But I think it led to a lot of more empirical research than one psychoanalyst thinking about his clients. And the modern research on the midlife crisis suggests that it is not very common.
DUBNER: From what I recall, there was a book by Gail Sheehy, which was just, at the time, massively everywhere. It was particularly looking at the passage of time and aging from a female perspective, but it was called Passages: Predictable Crises of Adult Life. That was 1976.
DUCKWORTH: Who was the author?
DUBNER: Gail Sheehy. Because my first job in journalism in New York was at New York Magazine — she had been a writer for New York Magazine, maybe even still writing when I got there. But it felt like the idea of a midlife crisis became, for a time — at least, in my memory in the 80s and 90s — a given, like, “this is part of life.”
DUCKWORTH: Almost like adolescence. Like, “You will go through it.”
DUBNER: Can you talk about how right or wrong that impression is? Because Rebecca certainly seems to think that it is a rite of passage, or at least a developmental stage.
DUCKWORTH: Well, we definitely — if we live long enough — go through midlife. So, there is midlife. The question is, is there a “midlife crisis” that most of us can brace for? And because there has been research — survey research, in particular — where you have the same group of people that you follow as they march on through the decades, you can, in a pretty defensible way, say whether there is or is not this prevailing midlife crisis, where people are trying to regain their youth, et cetera. And I think estimates of, “Have you had a midlife crisis, yes or no?” — or some version of that — estimates range from one in 10 people saying, “Yes, I have,” to, at most, like, one in four. That leaves most of us — three out of four, or nine out of 10 people — not having had a midlife crisis.
DUBNER: So, you’re saying the prevalence doesn’t seem to be that high — between 10 and 25 percent. But if the intensity is legit, to say that up to 25 percent of the population suffers from, or experiences, X condition, if the condition is serious enough, it’s certainly worth paying attention to. How would you describe or characterize the condition? What’s really at stake here?
DUCKWORTH: I think a lot of people are saying they have a lot of midlife stress. And so, let’s describe that. You know, Stephen, you and I talked, very early, I think. It was one of the first No Stupid Question conversations we had about the “happiness U.”
DUBNER: Oh, sure. David Blanchflower and Andrew Oswald.
DUCKWORTH: Yes, that’s right. I’ll never forget Blanchflower’s name.
DUBNER: I find that most flowers are more edible when you blanch them.
DUCKWORTH: Anyway, love Blanchflower’s name. And the research is very interesting. What Blanchflower claims, based on datasets collected around the world, is that, when you ask, “What is the low point of life satisfaction in the human lifespan?” he wants to say it’s midlife. And I can’t remember the exact number — was it 48 or 50?
DUBNER: Let’s say it’s 50, just for kicks.
DUCKWORTH: It was certainly midlife. And I think that is probably the best empirical evidence that there’s something like a midlife crisis that’s common. But the point I want to make about this Blanchflower research is that people aren’t that low. If you compare how satisfied they are with their life at this, you know, 50-year mark, it’s, like, slightly lower than when they’re 60 or when they’re 40. So, it is a “U,” and the “U” is at its bottom at mid-adulthood, but nothing like a real crisis. At the same time, I want to point out that there are other questions that you could ask people about their emotional experience: “How happy were you yesterday? How sad were you yesterday? How anxious? How worried? How angry?” And, on these emotional measures of happiness — not “How satisfied do you think you are with your life?” but “How do you feel?” — there, you don’t get a U. You don’t get a low point at midlife. You get this ever-increasing emotional stability that starts from adolescence and young adulthood, and just marches upward, fairly linearly. I say this to my undergraduates and my M.B.A. students, because they are at the bottom of the emotional-stability trend. And I’m like, “Look, I just want you to know that the future is rosy.” And that has to be taken into account, as well.
DUBNER: So, what does that mean? How can you explain the two different shapes of those curves? Does it mean that we sort of underrate emotional stability, perhaps?
DUCKWORTH: Well, there is a dimension of happiness, which is feeling. And there is a different dimension, which is thinking. So, these life satisfaction questions, right — and I think we’ve done this before, because you told me you were, like, a 9.2.
DUBNER: I think it was when you were talking about Filth-adelphia. You were a nine-point-something, even though you live in your least favorite city in the world.
DUCKWORTH: Yes. By the way, my husband was not thrilled that I trashed our home city.
DUBNER: Can I just say, Jason made the mistake of listening to No Stupid Questions. You should tell him his life would probably be much better if he just ignores it.
DUCKWORTH: But that question, “Overall, how satisfied are you with your life?” is a cognitive statement. It’s like, “What do you think about your life, overall?” And that is different from how you’re feeling. For example, income correlates much more strongly with how you think about your life than how you feel in your daily life.
DUBNER: You know, that might explain— I came across the fact that there’s a huge variation among countries and cultures, and it’s the richer countries— Like, the U.S. is kind of example No. 1 of a place that experiences a lot of midlife crises. That would seem to run counter to logic on some dimensions but, as you’re saying now, the more freedom and opportunity you have to think about options, and regrets, and future, et cetera, you can think yourself into thinking you’re less happy than you are. Is that kind of the idea?
DUCKWORTH: What does it mean to say, “I’m satisfied with my life”? I mean, almost directly, that question is asking about how your life is measuring up to your expectations. And there’s this really nice paper that an economist named Hannes Schwandt — who’s, I think, at Northwestern University — wrote on this explanation for the U-shaped curve of happiness, of life satisfaction in particular. And what this analysis takes advantage of is this longitudinal study in Germany — very well-known and well-used — it’s called the German Socioeconomic Panel. Social psychologists call it “GSOEP” for short. And it’s got this massive population of Germans that are followed over time. And, in this study, not only are you periodically asked, “On a scale from zero to 10, where zero is completely dissatisfied and 10 is completely satisfied, how satisfied are you with your life, all things considered?” We know Stephen’s a 9.2. We know Angela’s often around the same.
DUBNER: Even with the Philadelphia discount.
DUCKWORTH: Despite Philadelphia. There’s another question: Stephen, how do you think you will feel in five years? Same scale, zero to 10.
DUBNER: So, this is assuming I’m a nine right now? We work off that baseline?
DUCKWORTH: Yeah, let’s call it a nine. Let’s make it easy. So, Stephen Dubner in 2027.
DUBNER: I’ll be honest with you: I’ve read about this type of research. I took great comfort in that research when I read it because it’s basically good news. It basically says that, for most people — not all, certainly, but for most people — life kind of gets better.
DUCKWORTH: You’re like, “I know about Blanchflower. I’ll be a 9.5!”
DUBNER: But I totally empathize with the impulse to say, “Wait a minute! Five years from now? Oh, no, no. I’ll be older. The world will be more chaotic.”
DUCKWORTH: “Eyesight’s going to go.”
DUCKWORTH: So, you’re right on lots of counts. When you ask people, “How do you think you’ll feel in five years?” what happens is that, at midlife, basically people think that getting into older adulthood is going to be terrible, and that they’re going to be very unhappy. And, as you correctly predict, that actually doesn’t happen. Now, this question about expectations is central, because it seems that, when we get older — you know, 60s, 70s; we’re not talking about the very, very end of life, which is a very different question, because there, you’re often suffering and in pain — but as you’re just getting older, you lower your expectations, it seems, for what you would expect out of your life. And so, the idea here is that, perhaps the “unhappiness U” — this nadir at midlife — it’s that you are expecting the future to be worse than it really is, but also you are disappointed in that you have not achieved the expectations that you had when you were a younger self. So, it’s a kind of double whammy. A lot of people do express, like, “I thought my career would’ve turned out better than this. I thought I would be closer to my children.”
DUBNER: “This is all there is?”
DUBNER: The German data that Schwandt looked at, did it include people young enough to know whether people overestimate how satisfied they’ll be in their 20s, or in their 30s? In other words, is it coming from both sides — that, in middle age, you’re underestimating, and in younger age, you’re overestimating?
DUCKWORTH: The GSOEP data goes, I think, down to at least 21, and maybe even younger. Let me just read you from the abstract: “I find people to err systematically in predicting their life satisfaction over the life cycle. They expect, incorrectly, increases in young adulthood, and decreases during old age. These errors are large, ranging from 9.8 percent at age 21 to -4.5 percent at age 68.”
DUCKWORTH: So: “Ah, youth, they think things are going to be better than it is.”
DUBNER: But when we’re in middle age, we’re still really crappy at predicting our future feelings. It’s just that it’s going in a different direction.
DUCKWORTH: Also, I think being wrong about the future may not be so bad. In fact, it might be the right thing to do. What is it about optimistic youth that says, “You know what? Things are getting better. I’m going to be happier. I’m going to do more. I’m going to achieve more with my life. I’m going to have better relationships”? I don’t know that we want youth to not have those optimistic — and perhaps too-sunny — predictions, because that’s what drives us. And in fact, this puzzle about why people have mistaken expectations for the future has preoccupied philosophers, certainly psychologists, going back to William James and Kurt Lewin. I think that when you have aspirations, expectations — yes, maybe you’ll disappoint yourself when you arrive and you didn’t quite reach them, but isn’t that what got you off the couch in the first place? So, I think there’s a story here about how, for much of adulthood, we are striving, we are expecting better. It seems like, when we are in midlife, we’re starting to change our strategy to manage our expectations downward, to accommodate reality. Maybe that makes us feel better, but I’m not sure it gets us to do more.
DUBNER: It also makes me think about some of the — I guess you could call them “confounding factors” about middle age. And what I’m talking about, really, now is Rebecca — she’s got three kids. She and her husband both work full time. They’re deep, deep, deep in the middle of it. And it strikes me that, when we think about what Rebecca’s calling a “midlife crisis,” it happens to coincide with a lot of big life changes, and it’s hard to disentangle them. So, in her case, child-rearing — that has multiple effects. You’re tired. It’s expensive. By necessity, most parents stop doing a lot of the things that you used to do that were really fun.
DUCKWORTH: Like brunch.
DUBNER: There’s a 20-year brunch hiatus, let’s say. Also, I can imagine that because the passage of time in young children seems so acute, because they change fast — the difference between a five-year-old and a 10-year-old seems massive, but it’s, quote, “only five years” — maybe you kind of project that acuteness onto yourself, and feel like, “Oh my gosh, I am changing so much.”
DUCKWORTH: I think if you go back to Elliott Jaques, this psychoanalyst, Elliott Jaques thought there’s something about being halfway between birth and death, and you have glimpsed the end. And so, that precipitates this crisis. Okay, maybe. But maybe you happen to, at this point in the life cycle, have young children at home and — at least fast-forwarding to 2022 — you often have older parents that you are taking care of. Frank Infurna, who’s one of the experts on midlife crises, and also just midlife development, I think his perspective on this is very much about how, when you are at this stage of life — I guess my stage of life, right? — it’s, like, “the big squeeze,” I think is the term that he uses. This would describe me. I’ve got one parent left — my 87-year-old mom. I do worry about her. But we also have two kids who are — you know, they’re 19 and 20, but they still occupy a lot of our attention and our worry. That is also an explanation for why, perhaps, midlife in the United States is different than it is in other cultures. Infurna makes the point that in some other cultures, this “big squeeze” — you know: “I’ve got the stress of young children. I’ve got my career stresses. I’ve got aging parents. Oh, my God. It’s all going on at the same time” — in some countries, where there is a stronger social infrastructure, where there’s more support for parents, and more support for aging adults, that you would not have as much of a “big squeeze,” and you would have less of a midlife, quote-unquote, “crisis.”
Still to come on No Stupid Questions: Stephen and Angela share advice on how to avoid a midlife crisis.
DUCKWORTH: It doesn’t require ear piercing, tattoos, subwoofers, or anything else.
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Now, back to Stephen and Angela’s conversation about the legitimacy of the midlife crisis.
DUBNER: You said earlier that part of the issue is: You’re measuring your life at the midpoint against your own expectations, which I think makes a lot of sense. But how would you advise people like Rebecca, or anyone, to think about measuring against your own expectations versus comparing yourself to other people? I don’t know if social media is really as big a contributor as some people think, but it is really easy to see people a lot like you having or doing things that you don’t have or do. And I’m curious how dangerous that is, and whether you advise, for anybody who’s feeling a midlife crisis coming on, whether they should really focus on not comparing themselves to other people.
DUCKWORTH: We so often lament that teenagers are on social media, and it’s bad for their mental health because they’re comparing themselves to airbrushed, photoshopped versions of other teenagers. There was a TikTok video my daughter, Amanda, was telling me about, that said something like, “I have seen more physically perfect people in the last 30 seconds than my ancestors saw in a lifetime.” So, we lament that teenagers are spending all this time in this bizarre environment where the social comparisons are not just impossible, not just salient, but just, like, 24/7. And I think we should be worried about that, but I think you can make the argument that a lot of middle-aged adults on Facebook are kind of doing the same thing. Like, these postings of our second cousin’s graduation from fill-in-the-blank prestigious university, you know, the vacation I took to this mountainside, and “Look how gorgeous this is” — I think we do a lot of social comparison at midlife, too. And I 100-percent think that social media, especially the way a lot of us use it, is set up to make us incredibly unhappy.
DUBNER: What about, as another potential contributor to what might be a midlife crisis — I’m not sure, in psychology, whether it’s called “habituation,” or “accommodation,” I guess I would call it “diminishing returns,” really — is that all the good stuff that’s happened, you take for granted, and you just want more of the stuff you don’t have. What do you know about that?
DUCKWORTH: There is a lot of evidence that we spend a lot more time thinking about our problems than we do about our blessings. And that is why, by the way, things like “the gratitude exercise” where you think of three good things — you know: I had a ripe avocado. I really like talking to Stephen, the Diet Coke wasn’t flat.
DUBNER: I’m grateful that I made your three. So, you’re going on my list. Oh, my gosh, virtuous circle! I’ve never been in a virtuous circle before. This is amazing.
DUCKWORTH: I think the reason why that works at all is because our attention is on our problems. You know, we wake up and we think about our problems. We go to bed thinking about our problems. In my own dreams, I’m, like, literally solving problems, or thinking about things that give me some anxiety, or kind of a knot that needs to be undone. And so, the idea here, just generally, is that we do a lot of problem-focused thinking. And that, of course, is not good for life satisfaction or happiness. But here, too, I don’t know that we want to make the goal in life just to feel good at all times. Maybe that inclination to dwell on what we don’t have — I think you could argue that social media fans the flame into a bonfire, and that’s not good, but I also don’t think we want to have zero discomfort or dissatisfaction with where we are.
DUBNER: It’s funny you say that, because one downside of feeling ungrateful for your station in life, that I’ve always thought, is: It doesn’t serve as a motivation for change. And it’s nice to keep moving forward. I mean, I don’t mean this as an insult to your career choice, but whenever I think about a professorship, the reward for excellence, which is tenure, is essentially getting a 40-year employment agreement that makes it really hard to stop.
DUCKWORTH: I think it’s so dumb.
DUBNER: I certainly understand the motivation. I understand some of the upsides, but the downsides — not just for creating all this job-lock institutionally, but also, part of the fun of life is continuing to seek out new and different challenges. And, in academics, if you’re good, you’re identified quite early. It’s a very high bar, but then once you clear the bar, you’re basically super-duper incentivized to just stay there. And I’ve always thought that was strange. I think I would’ve had a midlife crisis if I had stayed in academia, but maybe that’s just sour grapes.
DUCKWORTH: I don’t know, but I think, Stephen, the question, “How satisfied are you with your life, all things considered?” could have a useful follow-up question, which is: “How satisfied are you with how satisfied you are with your life?”
DUBNER: Oh, boy.
DUCKWORTH: I know that’s meta.
DUBNER: It’s meta-meta.
DUCKWORTH: But I think there are a lot of people, for example, when it gets more specific to their job, like, you know: “How satisfied are you with the quality of your work, all things considered?” And maybe they say seven, or maybe they say eight, but they don’t say 10. But then: “How satisfied are you with that level of satisfaction?” — I mean, if you ask me that question, I am not satisfied with my work. I am tenured, but I don’t think it’s good enough. And I can tell you 10 to 20 reasons, specifically, how my work falls short of my expectations, but I am satisfied being dissatisfied with my work. I don’t want to live a life of complacency. I want to get better.
DUBNER: It’s such an interesting conversation. I thank Rebecca for writing in with this question. I would love to hear from listeners about, really, what they think of the midlife crisis. Is it more myth than reality, or is it very real to them? I’d love to hear examples. If you have a story you want to share with us, you could just record a voice memo on your phone. Make it nice and quiet. Make it pretty short. Send it to us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Maybe we’ll play it in a future show. You know, Angela, I actually, just by coincidence, picked up a book recently by a philosopher at M.I.T. named Kieran Setiya, who has a new book out, but this was his first book. It’s called Midlife: A Philosophical Guide. And he makes the argument that, while the midlife crisis was kind of over-hyped for a while, then found to be not as prevalent as it was thought to be at one point, but he doesn’t dismiss it. He says there’s all kinds of good reasons why this might exist. You’ve been beaten up by life a bit, perhaps, once you’re in your 40s and 50s. You may have that “Is that all there is?” phenomenon. But he does offer some prescriptions. And I wonder if I could read a few of these.
DUCKWORTH: Please! I’m in mid-life.
DUBNER: He writes first that, “You mustn’t be too self-involved. The obsessive pursuit of happiness interferes with its own achievement.” And he quotes one of your favorite philosophers, John Stuart Mill: ‘Those only are happy who have their minds fixed on some object other than their own happiness.’”
DUCKWORTH: I’m reading this book on chasing happiness by Bertrand Russell — also a philosopher — who says, more or less, the same thing. Don’t spend your whole life thinking about your own happiness. It’s the surest recipe to be unhappy.
DUBNER: Here’s another piece of advice: “Second,” Setiya writes, “you should make room in your life for existential as well as ameliorative value for activities that do not answer needs we would be better off without, but make life positively good. These range from the trivial — playing games with friends — to the profundities of art and science.”
DUBNER: Here’s another piece: “While the feeling of loss around midlife is real,” — I love this — “ask yourself what the alternative would be.” That’s something I think we have a hard time doing.
DUBNER: I’m going to run just a couple more by you. “When you imagine starting over, keep in mind the many ways things could have gone.”
DUCKWORTH: Like, run the counterfactuals, and think about bad counterfactuals, I guess.
DUBNER: Why is that so hard for us? You know, people spend a lot of time paying attention to the magnificence that results in certain decisions you make, but very little time in assessing the value in the poor decisions that you decided to not follow — which is a little bit like what we’re talking about now, which is run the counterfactual in your life: “What could have gone wrong?”
DUCKWORTH: I think your point is about omission versus commission. When we think about how to live our life — and midlife is a good time to ask ourselves, “How do I want the second half to go? We’re at halftime” — I think you’re right to pay attention to the things that we do, and also pay attention to the things that we do not do. So, the terminology would be like: Pay attention to your acts of commission and pay attention to acts of omission. Because they’re equally important, and it’s been a debate as to whether people neglect acts of omission, but I think there’s good research to suggest that you’re right, Stephen. We tend not to think about things that we didn’t do that were right.
DUBNER: The bad choices we avoided.
DUCKWORTH: And maybe if we did, maybe we’d be a little happier, because we could remind ourselves of the things that we didn’t do that could have gone badly.
DUBNER: There’s one more piece of advice from the philosopher, here, Kieran Setiya. It reminds me of you. He writes, “Projects are telic. They aim at terminal states. To engage with them successfully is to complete them. And so, to eliminate meaning from your life” — cue the scary music. “The solution is to invest more fully in atelic activities, ones that have no point of termination or exhaustion. Activities like going for a walk, spending time with friends, appreciating art or nature, parenting, or working hard. There may not be a change in what you do from day to day. It is enough to adjust your attitude, what you love.” So, this really reminds me of something you taught me years ago, when we first started talking — this was me interviewing you for an episode of Freakonomics Radio. You talked about one really useful component of gritty behavior: to substitute nuance for novelty. And that resonated so much with me because I feel like so many of us are in search of novelty all the time, and when we are not getting it, we can feel like we’re in a rut, or maybe even — like Rebecca is feeling — in a midlife crisis. She’s getting strange parts of her ear pierced. She wanted subwoofers in her car. She wanted to start smoking, even though she didn’t really want to start smoking. And I wonder if you could talk for a second about what you mean by “nuance, as opposed to novelty,” and why that might be helpful for Rebecca, or me, or anybody.
DUCKWORTH: It is part and parcel of human D.N.A., the human condition, to be interested in things that are new — things that we haven’t seen before, things that we haven’t experienced before. This drive for novelty, neophilia, is with us at all stages of life — not just during childhood, which is kind of an obvious time, when children are chasing things that they haven’t seen or done. I think the way to steer that in a way that’s beneficial — it doesn’t require ear piercing, tattoos, subwoofers, or anything else — is to discover the pleasure of nuance. I really like being a psychologist, as you know. And I think understanding that you can see new things because you’re an expert, and so there are these gradations that, before you’re an expert, “Ugh, it’s all the same,” but once you are an expert, you can discern these subtle differences. And I think that makes life full of novelty. And it can be more and more the case as you develop expertise. So, the fun thing about becoming an expert is that it’s not that you run out of these subtleties. In fact, the more you know, the more you notice. And so, you can, essentially, enjoy a life of never being bored, even though you know so much about a given thing.
DUBNER: I love the use of “discernment,” which is also a religious or spiritual phrase — a way of taking stock of your soul. But basically, what you’re saying — I mean, it goes back to Socrates, right? “The unexamined life is not worth living.” You’re saying, “Examine the life. You will find nuance in gradation there.” And so, for Rebecca, honestly, it sounds like the very act of writing this question to us indicates to me, at least, that she’s doing that examination. So, I have a really good feeling about Rebecca in Cleveland. How about you?
DUCKWORTH: I think the most important thing about this listener email, and about Rebecca in particular, is that I want to be friends with her! Rebecca, you sound awesome-sauce. I’d love to talk about midlife with you.
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No Stupid Questions is produced by me, Rebecca Lee Douglas. And now here is a fact-check of today’s conversation.
In the first half of the show, Stephen and Angela discuss how life expectancy has increased dramatically over the past century. This is correct, but we should note that, in the past couple of years, because of the pandemic, life expectancy in the United States has dropped for the first time since the Spanish Flu of 1918. According to a provisional analysis from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in 2019, the average person born in the U.S. had a life expectancy of 79 years. In 2021, that number dropped to 76 years. Other high-income countries have since seen a rebound in life expectancy, but the United States has yet to bounce back.
Later, Stephen recalls journalist Gail Sheehy wrote the book Passages, which was published in 1974, not, as he stated, 1976. He thought the book was about what aging is like from a female perspective. In actuality, the book covers the aging process for both men and women — or at least a certain demographic of men and women. The 400-page work of nonfiction is based on conversations Sheehy had with educated, middle-class individuals across America, age 18 to 55. And she was certainly still writing for New York Magazine when Stephen started there. Sheehy started reporting for the magazine in the 1960s and continued contributing until her death in 2020. During her time there, Sheehy followed Robert Kennedy’s presidential campaign in its last days, she penned early stories on Fire Island parties, and she wrote the famous “Secret of Grey Gardens” article on the reclusive relatives of Jackie Onassis.
Also, Stephen and Angela struggle to remember the exact age that economist David Blanchflower identified as the low point of the happiness U. The study found that individuals in developing countries hit the bottom of the U at 48.2, and those in advanced countries reached their lowest point at 47.2.
Finally, Stephen asks about whether young people are polled for the German Socioeconomic Panel. Angela thought that the data included answers from individuals as young as 21, but the sample used in the study actually included information from respondents ages 17 to 85.
That’s it for the fact-check.
Coming up next week on No Stupid Questions: Does reading a sign actually change your behavior?
DUBNER: If we have a sign that says, “Please don’t steal the wood, too many people are stealing the wood,” it turns out, having the sign tripled the rate of theft.
That’s next week on No Stupid Questions. And remember, we’d still love to hear your thoughts and stories on midlife crises. Just send a voice memo to NSQ@Freakonomics.com with the subject line “Midlife Crisis.” Make sure to record someplace quiet, and please keep your thoughts to under a minute. Maybe we’ll include them on the show!
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No Stupid Questions is part of the Freakonomics Radio Network, which also includes Freakonomics Radio, People I (Mostly) Admire, and Freakonomics, M.D. All our shows are produced by Stitcher and Renbud Radio. This episode was mixed by Eleanor Osborne. We had help this week from Lyric Bowditch and Jacob Clemente. Our staff also includes Neal Carruth, Gabriel Roth, Greg Rippin, Morgan Levey, Zack Lapinski, Julie Kanfer, Ryan Kelley, Jeremy Johnston, Jasmin Klinger, Emma Tyrrell, and Alina Kulman. We had additional research assistance from Anya Dubner. Our theme song is “And She Was” by Talking Heads — special thanks to David Byrne and Warner Chappell Music. If you’d like to listen to the show ad-free, subscribe to Stitcher Premium. You can follow us on Twitter @NSQ_Show and on Facebook @NSQShow. If you have a question for a future episode, please email it to email@example.com. To learn more, or to read episode transcripts, visit Freakonomics.com/NSQ. Thanks for listening!
DUBNER: Channel your high-school cheerleader-ness for a minute.
DUCKWORTH: Good. Yay!
- David Blanchflower, professor of economics at Dartmouth University.
- Frank J. Infurna, professor of psychology at Arizona State University.
- William James, philosopher and psychologist.
- Elliott Jaques, Canadian psychoanalyst who coined the term “midlife crisis.”
- Kurt Lewin, professor of psychology at University of Iowa.
- John Stuart Mill, philosopher, political economist, Member of Parliament in England.
- Andrew Oswald, professor of economics and behavioral science at University of Warwick.
- Bertrand Russell, British mathematician, philosopher, logician, and public intellectual.
- Hannes Schwandt, professor of human development and social policy at Northwestern University.
- Kieran Setiya, professor of philosophy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
- Gail Sheehy, American author and journalist.
- “Personality Stability and Change: A Meta-Analysis of Longitudinal Studies,” by Wiebke Bleidorn, Ted Schwaba, Anqing Zheng, Christopher J. Hopwood, Susana S. Sosa, Brent W. Roberts, and D. A. Briley (Psychological Bulletin, 2022).
- “‘Oft-Delayed but Never Deterred,’ Class of 2020 and 2021 Grads Celebrate,” by Katherine Unger Baillie, Brandon Baker, Michele W. Berger, Lauren Hertzler, and Louisa Shepard (Penn Today, 2022).
- “Life Expectancy (From Birth) in the United States, From 1860 to 2020,” by Aaron O’Neill (United Nations Department of Social Affairs, 2022).
- “Historical Change in Midlife Health, Well-Being, and Despair: Cross-Cultural and Socioeconomic Comparisons,” by Frank J. Infurna, Omar E. Staben, Margie E. Lachman, and Denis Gerstorf (The American Psychologist, 2021).
- “Is Happiness U-Shaped Everywhere? Age and Subjective Well-Being in 145 Countries,” by David G. Blanchflower (Journal of Population Economics, 2021).
- “Unhappiness and Age,” by David G. Blanchflower (NBER Working Paper, 2020).
- “The Real Midlife Crisis Confronting Many Americans,” by Frank J. Infurna (The Conversation, 2019).
- “How the Midlife Crisis Came to Be,” by Pamela Druckerman (The Atlantic, 2018).
- Midlife: A Philosophical Guide, by Kieran Setiya (2017).
- “Unmet Aspirations as an Explanation for the Age U-Shape in Wellbeing,” by (Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, 2016).
- “Is Well-Being U-Shaped Over the Life Cycle?” by David G. Blanchflower and Andrew J. Oswald (Social Science & Medicine, 2008).
- Passages: Predictable Crises of Adult Life, by Gail Sheehy (1974).
- The Conquest of Happiness, by Bertrand Russell (1930).
- Midlife in the United States: A National Longitudinal Study of Health & Well-Being, by the National Institute on Aging.
- “Would You Be Happier if You Lived Someplace Else?” by No Stupid Questions (2022).
- “Which Gets You Further: Talent or Effort?” by No Stupid Questions (2020).
- Three Good Things, gratitude exercise from Character Lab.