Happiness and suicide: the paradox of middle age

We know that 50 is the new thirty, and you’re only as young as you feel … etc, etc… but when you cut through all the clichés the evidence suggests something very strange is happening in middle age.

According to recent surveys, Baby Boomers are by far the happiest age group of all those studied;  they also have the highest suicide rates of any age bracket.

“So what is going on?” a recent New York Times article asked.  “Is middle age the best of times or the worst?”

There’s no clear cut answer.  The Times suggests that increasingly easy access to increasingly powerful drugs may make suicide attempts easier, and that the recent economic crisis has put many middle-aged people in positions of despair.  It also quotes an epidemiologist at the New York State Psychiatric Institute who suggests that because of all the social changes happening while they grew up, boomers are more prone to depression than other generations.

All this is possible, agrees Ann Bernhardt, a psychologist who specializes in the psychology of different life stages and heads Saybrook’s Marriage and Family Therapy program.  But she suspects that part of the confusion comes from the very concept of “Baby Boomers” as a single generation.  Psychohistorically, she says, they’re not.

“The Boomer generation(s) are highly confounded because they demographically include immediate World War II through Korean Conflict and Vietnam War–i.e., roughly 1946-1964,” she says.  “Tremendous shifts in ideology happened during these transitions, especially fueled by the ending of US isolationism and the beginning of global communication.”

Those major shifts, alluded to in the Times article, meant that boomers born in different times, in different parts of the country, would have first become aware of the world through very different events:  prosperity as opposed to riots;  civil rights as opposed to escalating war.  The mood of their environment, the belief it what was possible, in how secure the world was, were apples and oranges.

“As an ‘early boomer’ myself, I would say that the time was marked by an outpouring of idealism and possibility that marched through psychology as the human potential movement, with its emphasis on self-actualization and the possibility of bringing the best of human ideals into societal realization,” Bernhardt says.  “Many changes were realized in civil and gender rights and in respect for the individual conscience. However, as in all forward tides, regressive undertows also emerged. The demoralization and loss of hope and societal trust was an enormous factor for those of us living through the later 1960s.  To have come of age during that loss of hope would be a very different experience than having reached one’s personal maturity just a few short years before.”

Such differences, Bernhardt suggests, would naturally emerge during middle age – a time that can be every bit as personally tumultuous as adolescence.  Jung described middle age as a “Copernican revolution of the psyche,” a time of reckoning, where the first half of life with all its aspirations must join the second half of life with all its realities. 

For people with a solid developmental foundation or lives filled with support and success, this can be a profoundly meaningful and supportive journey – a time when life comes together and deep satisfaction is found.  But some boomers, Bernhardt says, will see their lives as a journey from a time of great social tumult and political uncertainty to a time of great social tumult and economic uncertainty – and this may be a journey some are not prepared for.  Especially if it comes on the heels of job loss or social upheaval caused by economic collapse.

“Individuals who are able to make a successful mid-life transition are fulfilled in their life goals and able to carry through the transition this life-stage requires,” Bernhardt says. “Those individuals who suffer disillusionment and obstacles that feel beyond their ability to cope feel this time as a period of profound loss.”

The result is a very different experience of midlife among those who, perhaps mistakenly, are considered part of the same generational cohort.  Middle age inevitably involves a choice:  do you rededicate yourself to self and society?  The way “boomers” perceive their ability to meet the challenges they face in another time of great upheavals is crucial to whether they will choose to do so.  The results of that choice are what we’re seeing in surveys now. 

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