Is there really such a thing as a "mid-life crisis?" The short answer is no, but it’s a myth that has endured over time in part because we go through transitions throughout our lives and may not always manage them in the best way.
But recognizing what is going on and remaining true to ourselves can help us feel excited for what lies ahead.
When we think about developmental stages, we often think of children – from birth through the teen years, it’s one roller coaster of a ride. But our development doesn’t stop there.
Health psychologist Shilagh Mirgain, PhD, explains that there are three main stages in adulthood and it is during these times of transition that we might find ourselves wondering "Who am I?," "Have I achieved what I always thought I would?," "Where do I go next?" and perhaps even, "Have I made a difference?"
The quarter-life stage (18-35 years)
The Quarter-Life Stage is the phase of life from 18 to 35 years old, when we’re entering adulthood. This is, according to Mirgain, the phase during which we establish our adult identity, set ourselves up in the workforce, develop intimate partnerships and maybe start families.
“During this developmental phase, it can be easy to feel lost or even rudderless. A way to navigate is to focus on the top five character strengths we have because those will have a lasting impact on our happiness and well-being,” she said.
She recommends taking the time to consider personal strengths and ask how we can find more ways to use them in our lives. It also helps to surround ourselves with people who support and encourage our positive aspects. Nurturing our strengths can help lead us to greater meaning and success in life.
The mid-life stage (35-55 years)
The Mid-Life Stage encompasses the 35 to 55 (or up to 65) years. It’s during this time we’ve achieved various goals, but we strive to find meaning in life. By this time, said Mirgain, we’ve already established an identity, a sense of family; might have children and a community; and are likely on a career path. It’s also the time when we’re likely to be caring for aging parents.
It’s a time of challenge and stresses – finding the flow between professional and personal demands.
“This phase is often called the ‘Sandwich phase,' " said Mirgain. "Major life shifts tend to occur – our parents may pass or require significant care, our children grow and leave home. And we often review our lives and priorities in view of the life we have left to live. Sometimes that is when individuals can struggle to find a greater purpose."
This is time, Mirgain said, that “generativity” comes into our thinking – concern for the next generation – and we become more outwardly focused. And while the Quarter-Life Stage was focused on personal strengths, this phase is focused on core values. Taking time to consider our values – what are those things we know to be true and believe - can help provide a sense of stability during times of transition. How we move through this helps sets the stage for the next one.
The later-in-life stage (65 years and older)
The Later-in-Life Stage happens around the time of retirement. It’s a time of re-purposing when we shift away from careers to find meaning and purpose in other ways. And that can be difficult for some people.
“If we have too much of our identity tied up in one thing – like our career – it can lead to a depression and even despair when we no longer are able to identify in that way,” said Mirgain.
But she adds that there is time to find new meaning, make amends for mistakes and ensure the life we’re leading remains consistent with our values. And that is part of the challenge in this phase: To cultivate wisdom by reflecting on where we’ve been and find fulfillment in new ways. And while our bodies might be aging, we can continue to grow and gain perspective if we commit to doing so.
Mirgain explains that moving from one phase to the next can be a cause for anxiety and even depression. But recognizing that we are in a time of transition and breaking down old barriers can be an exciting opportunity to make the most out of the life we’ve been given.
She suggests taking an annual review: Are there aspects of our life no longer serving us (perhaps a job, a friendship or even a marriage)? Is too much time focused on one area such as work or even family? Looking at the past can help us move forward in positive ways.
“We have the opportunity to live our lives aligned with our core values and to use our strengths to guide us in meaningful ways,” she said. “Learning life’s lessons from these times of transition can help us grow no matter our age.”