If a big birthday has sparked fantasies about buying a sexy sports car or quitting your job to backpack through Europe, here's news about that looming midlife crisis: It may be a myth after all.
The middle-aged years are actually one of the happiest periods in a person's life, according to a recent study.
"At this point, we have surveys of around 1,500 [middle-aged] people," Tel Aviv University psychologist Carlo 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."
Psychologist Elliot Jacques coined the term "mid-life crisis" some 40 years ago, when the average lifespan was 70 years. He believed that a person's quality of life started going down after age 35, according to LiveScience, and that it was natural to anticipate some extreme reactions as one contemplated mortality.
But these days, the 40s and 50s are actually a time of contentment, says Peter S. Kanaris, Ph.D., a psychologist on Long Island and coordinator of public education for the New York State Psychological Association.
"People in midlife have reached a time where they are a little more settled and established," he says. "Prior to midlife, people are building families, paying mortgages, developing in their careers at a time when there is much more uncertainty than usual. This creates a great deal of stress."
By the time people are middle-aged, though, they typically have less financial stress, Kanaris says. "Although," he admits, "these feelings of being able to enjoy life more have certainly been challenged by the current economy."
A so-called midlife crisis these days is really more of a midlife transition, says B.J. Gallagher, author of "It's Never too Late To Be What You Might Have Been."
"And most people have several transitions as they go through midlife," she explains. "It could be anything that throws a monkey wrench into your life that triggers it, from losing a job to a divorce to your youngest child leaving for college."
As for the myth of an actual "crisis," Gallagher says it's not really an apt term to use these days.
"Middle-aged people are generally more comfortable with their lives," she says. "They may feel that it's not the place where they thought they would be. But they make their peace with it."
Or they don't. Beth Israel Hospital psychiatrist Dr. Stephan Quentzel feels that the midlife crisis hasn't disappeared, it's just been pushed back a decade or so. "Given extended life expectancy and better health, it's simply moved to a later decade," he says. "We're not really improving the middle of life, we're just worsening the rest of life."
Strenger, who discussed his "midlife crisis" ideas in the journal "Psychoanalytic Psychology," notes that it's not uncommon for those in their 40s and 50s to begin to blossom.
Many may wonder if that's possible in the current economic downturn. Strenger's advice? "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."
Then again, it may all just be a matter of comparing how bad you feel at 40 or 50 with how bad you felt at 20 or 30.
"It's not really that life got better at midlife," Quentzel says. "It's that life got worse for younger people."