MIT philosopher Kieran Setiya thinks he can shed some light on the meaning and implications of the midlife crisis. The term “midlife crisis” gained popularity after psychoanalyst Elliot Jacques published a paper entitled “Death and the Midlife Crisis.” He found that his patients were flourishing but had a sense of malaise and meaninglessness associated with death. He was concerned with people of the first world, wherein things in their life were going well but there was still a sense of futility.
Setiya found the sense of futility “very elusive” and therefore, puzzling. The sense of futility present in the midlife crisis is not juxtaposed to feeling worthwhile. So, to get better insight on this problem, Setiya invokes Schopenhauer’s philosophy of desire. The idea is this: it is very painful to be in a state of wanting, so one ought to get rid of one’s desires, but without desires, one is in a state of utter boredom. So, pain or boredom?
Aside from this paradox, Setiya finds another thought from Schopenhauer to be relevant: In aiming to complete a desire for a goal, one is eliminating that object from one’s life. In a sense, one is extinguishing that which has been a source of meaning in one’s own life. For example, I have the goal of going to graduate school for philosophy. From now until then, a lot of my activities will help me reach that goal. Once I complete graduate school, that which has given purpose and meaning to so many years of my life will be gone until I set sights on another project.
A midlife crisis, then, is the realization that life is simply one project after another. A solution, Setiya explains, is to get more invested in atelic activities. These are activities, like going for a walk, spending time with family or friends, or reading philosophy, that do not necessarily have a particular telos or end point. One can stop these activities but it is impossible to complete them in the relevant sense. Essentially, one should not be so goal-oriented.