Midlife Development
By Janet Strassman Perlmutter

What Cutting-Edge Research Reveals About Successful Maturity

How about a pop quiz?

True or false:

• As health problems increase, quality of life will naturally decrease.

• Young couples are happier in their marriages than couples at midlife or older.

• Most women will experience depression with menopause.

• The older a person gets, the more he or she is affected by stress.

While popular media and our youth-focused culture have convinced many of us otherwise, we now have research showing that each of these statements is false.

Maybe you knew that – despite much of what you read, see or hear – because what we’re experiencing at midlife turns out to be quite at odds with what the media tells us about our middle years. So, while you may feel that your marriage is stronger now than years ago, that stress takes less of a toll than it did in your youth, or that menopause brings more relief than distress (all findings from a recent study on midlife), the cultural message we receive about middle adulthood is that we’re on a downhill slide.

But midlife means crisis, doesn’t it?

It’s time to trust what you feel rather than what you hear, according to a soon-to-be published book based on the most extensive exploration of midlife in our nation’s history. How Healthy Are We? A National Study of Well-Being at Midlife (University of Chicago Press), due in bookstores in February, analyzes just some of the findings of a 10-year MacArthur Foundation study on quality of life in middle age. This national survey, known as MIDUS (Midlife in the United States), drew detailed information from more than 7,000 adults. And further investigation is under way, thanks to a $26 million, six-year study sponsored by the National Institutes on Aging (NIA). 

The Invisible Age

You might wonder, why all the interest in midlife adults now? Or, alternatively, why has the stage of midlife remained uncharted territory until recently?

Dr. Ruth Westheimer, author of Conquering the Rapids of Life: Making the Most of Midlife Opportunities, calls the subject practically “taboo” in our culture. Pretty strong words from someone who makes her living talking about sex.

“People didn’t want to visualize themselves getting older,” says the popular therapist and writer, now a professor in the Department of Psychiatry at Yale University. People associate age with “walking with a cane, bent over, becoming decrepit,” she says, not an image many were eager to explore, much less identify with.

But growing older isn’t necessarily about decline. “Midlife represents the beginning or continuation of increasingly higher quality of life,” writes William Fleeson, a professor of psychology at Wake Forest University, in How Healthy Are We? With findings like that, who’d want to be 18 again?

Yet, until now, it has been easy to convince Americans of cultural myths, largely negative, about midlife because there have been no findings to counter those falsehoods. Check the shelves at your local bookstore. Other than a few clichéd titles about midlife crises, the topics bounce quickly from parenting to retirement, death and bereavement. It’s as if middle-aged folks were invisible. But why?

It’s a historic problem, explains Carol Hren Hoare, a professor of human development at George Washington University. “Freud had conceptualized adulthood as a barren terrain for development,” Hoare explains. It was accepted that who we become as adults is determined in childhood, and that adulthood represents an end state.

These assumptions weren’t widely challenged until the 1950s, when renowned psychologist Erik Erikson wrote about his eight stages of man in Childhood and Society, briefly observing opportunities for growth and development throughout all stages of life. But little serious study of adulthood, at any stage, began until the 1970s, Hoare notes.

“Over the last few decades, people have begun to live longer, and we’ve seen an explosion of interest in aging,” says Carol Ryff, the director of the Institute on Aging at University of Wisconsin and director of the NIA-funded MIDUS II study. Yet, while gerontology took off as a growing field, she says, “midlife was viewed as a stable plateau, a time when not much was going on.”

But the MIDUS findings counter this dramatically. “Research shows enormous dynamics in the middle years,” Ryff says, pointing to transitions such as job change, illness, divorce or widowhood, remarriage, kids leaving or returning home, and becoming a grandparent.

Developments on Development

Even Erikson, long considered the foremost authority on adult development, revised his views on the transformations occurring in our middle and later years as he passed through those stages himself. Those revisions to his earlier work have come to light only recently through Hoare’s book Erikson on Development in Adulthood: New Insights on His Unpublished Papers.

Originally Erikson conceived of the challenge of forming one’s identity, “the ability to grab hold of a goal,” as Hoare puts it, as a task to achieve in adolescence and young adulthood. But now we understand, as Erikson came to realize by his middle adulthood, that “identity once accomplished is not just there, identity challenges are ongoing,” Hoare says, “changing as you shift through the life span.”

What are my goals now? What are my priorities? What do I want to pass on to others?

Erikson saw our middle years as marked by the challenge to achieve “generativity,” rather than succumb to “stagnation” or “rejectivity,” a dismissal or disregard for other people. For Erikson, this meant our finding a way to contribute to our world.

“It’s the pinnacle of one’s life,” Hoare says. It’s not about scrambling to climb the corporate ladder in order to feel self-worth. Success at this stage, she explains, means “having the inclination and ability to care – for kids, work, ideas (or other) important things in one’s life – and placing one’s own needs on the back burner.”

Thus, in Erikson’s view, one’s identity at midlife, more than at any other stage, is marked by whom and what one nurtures.

Even wisdom, generally associated with the latest stages of life, Erikson came to see as a midlife opportunity, according to Hoare. “In later life, wisdom is too lofty a goal,” she concludes from her reading of Erikson’s unpublished writings. Wisdom entails not just insight, but also what Hoare calls “principaled action,” transmitting an ethical position about living in the world.

Hoare agrees with Erikson’s amended view that wisdom is a midlife role because, she says, it’s a time when “you can still influence resolutions. You can still show others the way by guiding and leading.” While later in life, she points out, adults often achieve a kind of individual wisdom, but they are in less of a position to pass it on, at least in this culture.

From Barren Terrain to Fertile Ground

So how does this mesh with the MacArthur study on successful midlife development? Quite nicely, it seems.

Carol Ryff, co-editor of and contributor to How Healthy Are We?, was one of 13 scholars in the MacArthur Foundation’s interdisciplinary Network on Successful Midlife Development (MIDMAC). She looked primarily at psychological well-being, represented by a combination of attributes, including self-esteem, mastery over one’s environment and quality of relationships with others. In sync with Erikson’s model, Ryff assessed sense of purpose, which she describes as “having goals to live for,” and autonomy, “the ability to follow one’s own convictions,” as well as the degree to which a person feels he or she is growing over time.

Comparing respondents ages 40 through 60 to both older and younger adults, Ryff found that, while one’s sense of purpose begins to drop with age, self-acceptance and mastery over one’s circumstances go up. She also found that well-being is heightened at midlife, despite (or maybe because of) what she calls “maximal role complexity.” In simple terms, this means that we’re awfully busy at midlife, filling a larger number of roles – such as parenting and grandparenting, working, volunteering, being involved in a religious faith and performing political or community service – than at any other stage of life. Erikson would call this generativity.

“Middle age is fantastic, because kids have left the nest and there is all this space to figure out what you want for yourself,” says Lois Camberg, a 55-year-old social science researcher. But what midlifers want for themselves often involves giving to others, too.

yle="FONT-FAMILY: Verdana; FONT-SIZE: 10pt">“My friend, who has a pretty high level job, is now taking Fridays off to take care of her grandchild. I know several grandmoms who do things like that,” Camberg says. “I clear a morning each week now to volunteer at our local senior center. Maybe it’s dangling motherhood needs to continue to take care ... or find a way to contribute to the world.”

yle="FONT-FAMILY: Verdana; FONT-SIZE: 10pt">While the time demands can be stressful, Ryff observes, it appears that well-being rises if these are primarily activities we care about and want to be involved in. Grandparenting is a perfect example of this, she says, describing that role as potentially very gratifying even if exhausting. And research indicates that grandparenting, like parenting, pays a return to the adults, as well as the children.

yle="FONT-FAMILY: Verdana; FONT-SIZE: 10pt">“It gives a sense of purpose and aids the parent’s or grandparent’s growth and development,” Ryff observes. “This contributes to that sense of well-being.”

yle="FONT-FAMILY: Verdana; FONT-SIZE: 10pt">Ryff’s research again supports Erikson’s theories when she talks about social responsibility.

yle="FONT-FAMILY: Verdana; FONT-SIZE: 10pt">“It’s caring about more than just ourselves,” she says. “It’s the way in which we contribute positively to the social order.” But it goes beyond how good we feel when we reach beyond ourselves, she adds. It even goes beyond what Erikson knew, because now studies suggest that such behavior has positive effects on one’s physical health, too.

yle="FONT-FAMILY: Verdana; FONT-SIZE: 10pt">Ryff and others’ analyses of the MIDUS research shows that these qualities – like mastery, autonomy and the strength of our relationships – are the buffers to midlife stress. Financial resources and educational background certainly give a person a leg up in this world, but you can have money and schooling and still fare poorly through midlife if you have poor social relationships or a self-defeating outlook on life, she says.

yle="FONT-FAMILY: Verdana; FONT-SIZE: 10pt">Alternatively, Ryff points to studies showing that many of those lacking resources like money, privilege or work flexibility still enjoy a great sense of well-being due, it appears, to their sense of purpose, positive outlook, relationships and spirituality.

yle="FONT-FAMILY: Verdana; FONT-SIZE: 10pt">If money and education are not predictors of well-being at midlife, then what about health? Researchers on midlife looked closely at the relationship between physical well-being and psychological well-being, with surprising results.

LY: Verdana; FONT-SIZE: 10pt">“The quality of social relationships (an aspect of psychological well-being) is a powerful predictor of how long one lives, the incidence of illness and recovery rates from illness,” Ryff reports, referring to many longitudinal studies.

LY: Verdana; FONT-SIZE: 10pt">But, despite assumptions to the contrary, it is not a two-way street. As MIDMAC associate William Fleeson concludes in How Healthy Are We?, “the impact of physical health on life quality is relatively small, regardless of adult age.”

LY: Verdana; FONT-SIZE: 10pt">Psychotherapist and writer Elana Rosenbaum demonstrates this dramatically. It’s hard to catch up with her between her travels, speaking engagements and the book she’s writing. Just before turning 60, her cancer recurred after more than five years in remission. Despite this disappointment, Rosenbaum’s demeanor remains bright.

LY: Verdana; FONT-SIZE: 10pt">“It helps me to remember that every moment is precious,” she says. “It’s a push to be more creative. It has spurred me on to live each moment fully, to fill my life with the people and activities that enrich my life.”

LY: Verdana; FONT-SIZE: 10pt">“I take more chances now; I try more new things,” she adds, referring to her decision a couple of years ago to leave a secure job to try working for herself.

Midlife Crises: Hype and Hope

LY: Verdana; FONT-SIZE: 10pt">Does all this good news mean that we’re not entitled to a midlife crisis?

LY: Verdana; FONT-SIZE: 10pt">Midlife is certainly a time of considerable change, but a rich body of research now shows that we have many more pleasant options beyond expecting chaos and upheaval as the clock ticks on.

LY: Verdana; FONT-SIZE: 10pt">At the same time, “some of the trials and tribulations of life make us stronger and more effective,” Ryff reports from the MIDUS data. “A life of limited challenges and few impediments is not necessarily the best life. Challenges hone skills and increase our sense of meaning and purpose.”

LY: Verdana; FONT-SIZE: 10pt">Not that anyone is wishing that obstacles and losses will come their way. But when they inevitably do, research shows that they needn’t mar our well-being in the long term.

In her book on midlife, Dr. Ruth Westheimer compares this time of life to a kayaker navigating the rapids. There will be turbulence, but this is a time to “show courage, take risks, stick your neck out,” she asserts.

“A successful person is one who can take risks and know ‘I might not succeed, but I won’t die over this,’” says the behavioral therapist, an active grandmother in her 70s. She urges adults to prepare by reading, remaining open to new information and learning to expect the “whitewater.”

Westheimer would agree with Ryff, who asserts that “aging well is about accepting change. It’s a fundamental part of life. Trying to keep in a holding pattern, a Dorian Gray mentality, is a recipe for disaster.”

As for the media portrayal of midlife, Ryff attributes this to “economic imperative.” In other words, it’s a way to sell us products that we’ve been told we need to stay youthful and therefore better. “As a culture, we’re still fighting aging for all it’s worth,” says Ryff. “But the research underscores, as people move across the decades of midlife, they find life more worthwhile than the media would have us believe.”


Conquering the Rapids of Life: Making the Most of Midlife Opportunities, by Ruth Westheimer and Pierre Lehu, Taylor Trade Publishing, 2003.

Erikson on Development in Adulthood: New Insights on His Unpublished Papers, by Carol Hren Hoare, Oxford University Press, 2002.

How Healthy Are We? A National Study of Well-Being at Midlife, edited by Orville Gilbert Brim, Carol D. Ryff and Ronald C. Kessler, University of Chicago Press, due out February 2004.

National Survey of Midlife Development in the United States (MIDUS) online at

Janet Strassman Perlmutter, LICSW, is a freelance writer and psychotherapist who helps individuals, couples and families navigate life’s rapids. She writes often on the joys and challenges of life transitions.

Quotations from the How Healthy Are We? (©2003 University of Chicago, all rights reserved) are used with permission of the publisher, University of Chicago Press.