Midlife and Meaning

Sunday, March 8, 2020
First Aired: 
Sunday, December 3, 2017

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.

Listening Notes

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.

Comments (4)


Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Saturday, December 2, 2017 -- 12:20 PM

Mid-life---another passage...

I suppose that mid-life, whenever it comes, is one of those exigencies of human being. I've been reading a lot about consciousness lately (after having thought about it for far longer). I'm not certain that we are ever satisfied with our lives and what we have or have not made of them. Oliver Sacks died in 2015, after having a long and productive life. His book, The River of Consciousness, seems to reveal a man who was comfortable in his own skin and one who was, by many measures, happy with what he had accomplished. I never met Dr. Sacks. But his work has fascinated and amused me for many years. I have never owned a new car. Could not see any percentage in it. The immediate depreciation rate makes it non-negotiable for me personally. I do have a life goal which may or may not be realized: publication of some of my own written thoughts and epiphanies. Not for the money or the prestige, though. Just because I think I can...I think Oliver Sacks would have appreciated that aspiration.

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Wednesday, February 19, 2020 -- 11:46 AM

On reflection ( these few

On reflection ( these few years later): I pretty much feel the same about what I wrote here in 2017. The only thing which has changed? Through practice and self-discipline, I have begun to think better (rather than harder). I am way past midlife now and was in 2017. Recommendation to philosophiles everywhere: read Tom Nagel's The View From Nowhere, but do not necessarily hold onto all of his notions about BELIEF---those were a little too optimistic, seems to me...it was 1986, after all.

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Sunday, February 23, 2020 -- 11:21 AM

An extension to my notion,

An extension to my notion, about Nagel's notion(s) about belief (this from an extension to my own essay on belief, opinion and knowledge):
...Much of what we identify as belief is an installation. When one elects to adopt a belief (or maybe a set of them), it very much depends upon interest, investment, motivation and personal preference: we choose our adoptions carefully, often basing them on explicit or implicit expectations of others. This is only infrequently connected with how things probably are and much more frequently with how they might possibly be, should we choose not to meet the aforementioned expectations. This is not to say that all beliefs are bogus: many strongly-held beliefs are ironclad, while other adoptees are the red-headed stepchildren, whom no one wants but all feel constrained to refuse. It is complicated but QUID PRO QUO is a commonplace contingency of human conditions. If a reductio is posited, most beliefs are nothing, more-or-less, than coping mechanisms...

Tim Smith's picture

Tim Smith

Sunday, March 8, 2020 -- 5:10 PM

I really like Kieran's Kieran

I really like Kieran's, “The Problem of ‘Living in the Present.’” The New York Times. There he makes the distinction between telic and atelic thought and action.

Pondering midlife is an atelic action. There is no end to it. Maybe no reason to do it, but do it I do.

Kieran is deep. I would like to hear more of his take on meaning, which is the crux of midlife angst. This show ended too early. I wish I had time to read more on this. I don't. But I would listen more and perhaps think more ... especially about atelic thoughts.