The stereotype that many middle-aged people get depressed and must perk up their lives with sports cars and affairs may be an outdated myth, scientists say. In fact, these days many people often feel more fulfilled in their middle and later years, data shows.
The term "mid-life crisis" was coined 40 years ago by psychologist Elliot Jacques, who reasoned that people's quality of life generally declines after age 35 (at the time, the average lifespan was about 70 years). Jacques suggested that some extreme reactions to looming mortality were to be expected at around this time of life.
But psychologist Carlo Strenger of Israel's Tel Aviv University says that's no longer true, and that studies show mid-life can be one of the happiest periods of people's lives.
"At this point we have surveys of around 1,500 [middle-aged] people," Strenger told LiveScience. "Most of them actually say that they are better off and happier and more balanced than they were when they were 20 years younger. It's quite surprising."
Though the research has so far been confined to Western cultures, Strenger thinks the same trends, as well as similar stereotypes, may apply to other cultures.
Strenger says that common notions of what mid-life is supposed to be like are stuck in the past, when life-expectancy was lower, people's health, especially in later years, was much worse, and there was less emphasis on education and self-awareness.
"People are so used to thinking of mid-life as basically a period of loss that it often does become a self-fulfilling prophecy," he said. 'But some people, you really see that they begin to blossom, they begin to be more fruitful. They do things on a larger scale."
Nowadays, when people are in their 40s and 50s, they have matured, learned to take some of life's hiccups in stride, learned more about themselves and the world around them, and so are uniquely poised to take advantage of the next phase of their lives.
"When you are 50, statistically you have as many adult years ahead of you as you have behind you," Strenger said. "It really takes time to internalize what that really means. It would mean that this whole lifetime that you have behind you, you have ahead of you, and the question is what you want to do with it."
In fact, this may be the time for many people to finally tackle projects or dreams that they've been putting off. They might have a better chance of succeeding because their choices will be based on knowledge and experience, rather than youthful blind ambition.
"Give yourself the chance to truly reassess your choices and to see how you can now use your self-knowledge and live a much more meaningful life than you've lived before. Mid-life can be the moment where you can truly realize your dreams because you know yourself much better."
Strenger detailed his ideas in a recent issue of the journal Psychoanalytic Psychology.