What exactly is a midlife crisis? One way to think about it is that it’s the creeping feeling that what we’re doing with our lives isn’t worthwhile. Or worse: the midlife crisis can be the feeling that no choice of life could ever have been worthwhile.
What is it
At some point or another, the midlife crisis comes for us all. But what is it really about? Is it a sense of our mortality, the fear of not achieving what we hoped to, or the sinking feeling that we’ve been spending our whole adult lives chasing our tails? And what is the solution: a new car, a new life goal, or the choice to give up goals altogether? Ken and Josh entertain the possibilities with Kieran Setiya from MIT, author of Midlife: A Philosophical Guide.
Ken and Josh try to define the “midlife crisis.” Does everyone experience it, and can it happen in one’s life at any time? Josh thinks that the midlife crisis is unique to midlife, since it comprises the recognition that death is imminent. Ken considers “living in the moment” as a solution to the mid-life crisis, but he fails to convince Josh that this is a comprehensive remedy. Instead, Josh maintains that life is a necessarily goal-oriented and project-driven venture.
Our hosts welcome Kieran Setiya, a professor of philosophy at MIT, to the show. Ken asks Kieran: how does the midlife crisis differ from existential crises? Kieran agrees with Josh’s earlier point, observing that midlife crises tie to life’s temporal structure. He adds that we exhaust our goals by either achieving or failing to achieve them. For this reason, people must constantly set new goals for themselves, but this process can accumulate into a “relentless grind” of project-setting. Kieran believes that a Schopenhauerian understanding of desire can help us to understand the tenets of midlife crises.
The philosophers open the discussion to callers and consider solutions to the midlife crisis. Kieran advises that we value our lives as a process or journey. We should value and engage in activities that may not have an end or “goal” but give our lives meaning, according to him. Kieran helpfully distinguishes this suggestion from advice to “live in the moment.” Finally, the philosophers consider change in perspective and meditation as other remedies to the midlife crisis.
Roving Philosophical Reporter (Seek to 5:50): Liza Veale files a report on the nature of mid-life crisis and contrasts empirical research on it to its portrayal in movies. While movies suggest that people’s happiness in life declines with time, empirical research shows that happiness curves back up after the mid-life dip.
Sixty-Second Philosopher (Seek to 46:58): Ian Shoales considers how men and women may experience the mid-life crisis differently and discusses tropes of the mid-life crisis in popular culture.