the common man reconciles himself with mortality

I happened to run across a review of philosopher Kieran Setiya’s guide on how to deal with a midlife crisis.  Just the sort of gimmick for a philosopher looking to do a little of what scientists call “outreach”, I would say.  Although Western popular culture has seized on the idea, most people don’t suffer a crisis per se.  Still,

n 2008, the economists David Blanchflower and Andrew Oswald published their paper “Is Well-Being U-Shaped over the Life Cycle?” which suggested that people’s well-being – their subjective sense of how well their life is going – shifts over time. Well-being is high in early adulthood, and high in old age, but it dips in middle age, particularly in the forties and fifties. This U-shaped curve forms the empirical evidence for the existence of the midlife crisis…

How should we characterize the midlife crisis? Setiya notes that it arises in different forms: sometimes it manifests itself in a sense of emptiness about one’s life; sometimes in mourning for the foreclosure of options that were once open to us. For many, it involves a reckoning with death and mortality.

(I’ve peaked at this paper, which wasn’t the first to make the claim of a “U-shaped” well-being curve, but argues that it is still present when cohort effects are controlled for.)  Isn’t it remarkable that this subjective sense of well-being turns up as one passes from midlife to old age?  The foreclosure of options and the approach of death are even more striking then.  And yet somehow most people, average men and women who are not trained philosophers, manage to reconcile themselves to it, thus accomplishing what is supposed to be one of the main aims of philosophy.  A reassuring thought.

7 Responses

  1. if this is true, does it follow that the key to avoiding a midlife crisis is to start trying to grapple with mortality early?

  2. The big U suggests that brooding over one’s own demise is not the nadir of human existence. It looks like the nadir is one’s years in what they used to call the Rat Race. Work can be satisfying, but the workplace can be very nasty. I’d guess most Americans loose more sleep over workplace frustration than they do over gloomy thoughts of death. Those gloomy thoughts will come, but what really drives a man to drink is the SOB in the next office.

  3. “The foreclosure of options and the approach of death are even more striking then.”

    In old age, you’ve had time to learn to live with it. And the foreclosure of options is coming to terms with the loss of ambitions and hopes you had since you were a young man. I don’t think a lot of people develop major new ambitions in middle age.

    Having turned fifty this year, the ambitions it hurts to let go of are the ones that first gripped me as a teenager. I took up some hobbies in my forties that I now know I’ll never master as I’d hoped, but those don’t bother me much. I wasted a little money and a little pride and one collarbone — oh, well. They aren’t a part of me in any deep way. They weren’t a part of who I was trying to become in the intense, formative years of my youth.

    Maybe that’s just me, but I bet it’s not.

    I’ll get over it, of course, without leaving my wife or anything stupid.

  4. > does it follow that the key to avoiding a midlife crisis is to start trying to grapple with mortality early?

    Does that mean that you just hit the bottom of the “U” earlier?

    Alternatively, one could try to maintain youthful obliviousness until the end, but nobody’s going to write a book recommending that, because if you’re writing a book about not thinking about mortality, you must not be following that strategy yourself.

  5. well I was thinking more like spreading the “misery” out over more time so that it never hits crisis levels. If instead of spending months hashing it out relentlessly in your 40s/50s maybe spend a little time praying and thinking about your own mortality habitually every day/every sunday and then boom suddenly you’re old and never freaked out about it.

  6. As a philosopher, is it a comforting thought?

    If one of the chief aims of philosophy is consolation, and yet the lion’s share of people find consolation without philosophy, what’s philosophy for, then, other than building castles in the air?

    Either then we’d have to show that philosophy is more effective at consolation which, contra Solon, I think untrue, or that philosophy is the route that those of us who are too smart/psychotic/sociopathic to take the usual route must take.

  7. “I’ve peaked at this paper” Subconsciously doubting its findings I see.

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