Mid-life Blues
The Competence Cauldron

Mid-life Blues

Ravi Kumar Pillai

Ravi Kumar Pillai

The four friends, Arjun, Peter, Sreekanth and Anjali, were almost at the peak of anxiety as they wound their way through the crazy weekend traffic of Bengaluru to their long-awaited get-together. That Saturday evening was being eagerly looked forward by them; they were meeting each other after a pretty long time.

Classmates in a prestigious Engineering College in Pune, their lives have followed different trajectories as they plunged into the routine of their careers. Arjun has settled in the Silicon Valley where he built his technology start-up to great success. Peter worked for a Gurgaon based MNC and rose up the ranks to become the powerful VP in charge of operations. Sreekanth has had his ups and downs and at the end of it all has a failed business and a broken marriage on his life’s balance sheet. He isn’t at his emotional best. Anjali, remains a single parent, doesn’t rue her live-in experiment and is fully devoted to her ed-tech business which she set up along with a couple of friends in the tech hub of Hyderabad.

Thick friends while at college, now over two decades into their work life, even their occasional social media exchanges have become sporadic. So, when there was a suggestion for a timeout from their work life worries and for a weekend getaway in Bengaluru, all of them felt a sudden rush of nostalgia and quickly firmed up the schedule.

As they settled down to unwind at the corner table of the posh down-town restaurant, the frown on their foreheads were a world away from the ubiquitous energy and optimism with which they crafted and shared their dreams in their final year at the college. The setting for their meeting seemed to reflect their state of mind - in the years since they last visited the city, Bengaluru has lost much of its pristine old-world charm and now resembles the typical hassle-worn archetype of any Indian city; as for the four friends, they have learnt to temper their aggressive optimism with a mix of uncertainties, routineness and indifference – towards careers and life.

As the friends loosened up, it was but natural to feel and sound a bit philosophical about life, career and happiness. That evening, in the midst of soothing hand holding and walking down memory lane, they realised yet again the emotional values of empathy and mutual concern.

Psychologists say the uneasy feeling at middle years is universal; it goes by terms such as mid-life or mid-career dilemma. Much research has been done across corporate and academic sectors, papers presented and coaching sessions held on the behavioural issues of employees and entrepreneurs, academics and laymen alike in the age group of approximately 40 to 60 years.

A recent study led by Professor David Blanchflower of the prestigious Ivy League institution, Dartmouth College used data across 132 countries - 95 developing and 37 developed nations - to determine the correlation between well-being and age. The researchers concluded that every society has a U-shaped “happiness curve,” with the lowest point of the U-curve at a mean age of 47.2 years for developed countries and 48.2 years for developing countries. The more fulfilling the ecosystem for education, employment, entrepreneurship and wealth creation is, the earlier in life the trough of the U-curve of happiness is likely to be. This is quite normal since the theory of diminishing returns applies as much to happiness and wellbeing as to economic output.

According to Prof. Blanchflower, the parameters for “unhappiness” his research team used included a variety of feelings such as anxiety, loneliness, sadness, depression, phobias and panic, being downhearted, having restless sleep, fear of failure and deprecating self-worth. An umbrella term for the aggregate of depressive emotions during the middle years, ‘mid-life blues’ are accentuated by contributory factors like career experiences, conjugal sensitivities, parenting pressures, financial issues as well as temptations and addictions of various sorts.

Why is the Happiness Curve U-shaped? Human life is defined by aspirations, efforts and fulfilment. As the life cycle moves from early childhood to adolescence and onward to youth, acquisition of knowledge, skills, attitudes, behaviours and values enhances competitiveness, employability and life success factors. In the entry, stabilisation and maturity phases of career life cycle, the focus remains on pursuit of upward mobility in terms of recognition, rewards and satisfaction. For most people with focus and ambition, this is an ascendancy phase and spirits are generally high.

From the age of approximately 40 years, a drop in happiness, satisfaction and feeling of well-being tends to set in. This is the critical phase in career and life where beefing up professional and behavioural preparedness can help us to ride out the bumps.

Much of the work on ageing and well-being stresses that old age is a relatively more positive period than many expect it to be. It therefore follows that between the aspirational youth and the relatively matured, content and calm post-retirement phase there is a likely ebb in emotions, confidence and optimism that is experienced by a large number of people. About a third of middle-aged individuals are expected to demonstrate the stresses and strains of mid-life crisis. Depending upon the social, economic and cultural ecosystem, the extent, intensity and impact of this lull in positivity might vary.

Though the phenomenon of sudden mood swings in middle years of life was chronicled as early as 2000 B.C., the term ‘mid-life crisis’ itself wasn’t coined until 1965, when a psychologist named Elliott Jacques wrote an essay called “Death and the Mid-life Crisis.” The paper was the outcome of a decade-long research. He quoted a patient’s eloquent lament: “Up till now, life has seemed an endless upward slope, with nothing but the distant horizon in view. Now suddenly I seem to have reached the crest of the hill, and there stretching ahead is the downward slope with the end of the road in sight”. The same feeling is echoed by many executives in their forties and fifties today.

Studies show that cognitive skills, memory and motor skills do slow down as people cross early forties; however numerical skills, logical reasoning, emotional skills, ethics and values do firm up as experience, feedback and introspection mature the outlook towards life and career. On balance mid-life can be a period of renewal and planning for the next phase. While prescriptive remedies and self-help books are not the recipe for finding calm in the midst of the mid-life syndrome, each one has to undertake a personalised journey of self-discovery and craft own emotional reboot strategy.

However, I would like to indicate some of the best practices that have proved effective in handling mid-life anxieties and apprehensions. What is to be included in your own agenda is a matter purely to be decided by you based on self-analysis.

Firstly, in managing midlife dilemma, the role of family is critical. Mid-life review is your chance to renew and reinforce the bonds, mutual respect, and empathy in the family space and facilitate everyone -self, spouse and children- to seek higher fulfilment, wellbeing and happiness. Have you been too much involved in the career rat race? Have you been blind to the emotional needs of your dear ones? Have you taken your family members and their sensitivities for granted? Mid-life self-critique would offer an opportunity to do course-correction. The success depends on the personal commitment to go through a personal change agenda.

Secondly, mid-life review should involve asking yourself uncomfortable questions on your career skills. Have you been updating your professional skills to be current and be in sync with developments in your domain? What about a SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats) analysis of your career readiness and strategic preparedness for technological advancements likely to impact your field of expertise?

Thirdly, what about your work-life balance? Are you overwhelmed by the pressures to deliver so much so that your emotional skills such as flexibility, adaptability and creativity are under strain or neglect? Are you able to find time for your passion and interests beyond immediate career demands ?

Fourthly, one should take care to expand professional network. In these days of disruptive technologies and unexpected business currents, it is not life-long employment that is the name of the game. But competence upgrade and employability quotient do make the difference in careers and life. Job changes would increasingly take place based on referrals and hence networking and relationship building skills are critical for surviving and outgrowing mid-life career blues.

Fifthly, spiritual competence has a role in equipping you to ride out of mid-life crisis. One of the defining aspects of mid-life syndrome is the creeping awareness of ageing and the inevitability of death. Being spiritually strong and developing the ability to internalise universal love, compassion and companionship with the Supreme would strengthen your resolve to face the challenges with poise and dignity. Yoga, meditation and mindfulness regimen would be helpful in easing the mid-life stress.

It is a sign of the changing times that the generation that is at the threshold of mid-life years views the coming phase not so much as a crisis or dilemma but more as an opportunity for self-review, renewal and reinforcement to meet the emerging challenges. More mindful than their parents about the psychological perils of middle age, they do take proactive steps to prepare better to phase the transition years. Mid-life years can be quite rewarding if approached with professional and behavioural preparedness and can become an opportunity to advance seamlessly to the next phase of career and life with confidence.


*Ravi Kumar Pillai is a practising strategy consultant, trainer, coach and mentor based in Trivandrum. He can be contacted at ravikumarpillai9@gmail.com