Midlife: A Philosophical Guide Review

posted in: Aging, Midlife | 0

Certainly, in naming this blog what I have, I am interested in what (if anything) midlife means and how to successfully navigate it.

Kieran Setiya, who teaches Philosophy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in his book, Midlife: A Philosophical Guide, provides an erudite and entertaining exploration of how to approach this time of life.

The core of Setiya’s book looks at how the lives and works of different philosophers (from Aristotle to John Stuart Mill to Arthur Schopenhauer, among others) approach living life as one grows older. Despite delving into serious philosophical discussions, Midlife is never dry or overly academic. Setiya adroitly summarizes and analyzes their thoughts with approachable language.

There is a lot to be gleaned from this short work (181 pages including notes) and the general mood is one of optimism about how one’s later years can progress.

But for the purposes of this review (and for kickstarting more posts about midlife), I want to focus on how Setiya defines midlife. Since I haven’t written about this topic as much as I had planned to, I need to begin with the basics, namely, when is midlife and what do we even mean when we talk about it.

When Is Midlife?

A first step to understanding midlife is defining when it happens. Although midlife is tied to physical aging, it also has cognitive and psychological origins that can occur at different times for different people.

The “when” of midlife is just an estimation.

Setiya helpfully points to the developmental psychologist and psychoanalyst Erik Erikson who defined eight stages of psychosocial development. As Setiya relates, Erikson describes a “second stage of adulthood,” which ranges from 35 to 64. This stage is a time for “generativity or stagnation.”

Other sources I looked at say Erikson defined this stage as occurring from 40 to 65.

According to Erikson, “generativity” means that a

“person does best at this time to put aside thoughts of death and balance its certainty with the only happiness that is lasting: to increase, by whatever is yours to give, the goodwill and higher order in your sector of the world.”

Failure to do so can lead to stagnation.

More simply put:

Generativity is the positive goal of middle adulthood, interpreted in terms not only of procreation but also of creativity and fulfilling one’s full parental and social responsibilities toward the next generation, in contrast to a narrow interest in the self, or self-absorption.

Although this age range pushes midlife beyond the mathematical midpoint of one’s life, it begins to make sense when we align it with Erikson’s thoughts about this “second stage of adulthood.”

Rich Karlgaard, in his book, Late Bloomers: The Power of Patience in a World Obsessed with Early Achievement (another book I plan to delve more deeply into), provides further reasoning, in contemporary society, as to why what we call midlife occurs later rather than sooner.

He points to Jeffrey Arnett, a psychology professor at Clark University, who urges society

To recognize what he calls “emerging adulthood” as a distinct life stage. Arnett believes that social and economic changes have caused the need for a new, distinct stage between the ages of eighteen and thirty.

The world has changed since Erikson first formulated his ideas in the mid-Twentieth Century. We need to not only consider the social and economic changes Arnett refers to but also the fact that people live longer.

This age range (let’s say mid-to-late 30s into mid 60s) aligns with some other reading I have done and with my own thinking. The early part of this range often coincides with an individual’s major life accomplishments (having children, thriving in a career), the later part with the decline of those accomplishments (children move out, one retires).

Again, all of this will vary by individual.

One’s mid-sixties can represent major life changes and leads into a new stage of life (Erikson’s Ego Integrity vs. Despair, for example). At this point in life, even the healthiest of people will begin facing medical issues and loss of loved ones.

So this mid-to-late 30s through mid 60s age range makes sense in terms of discussing midlife.

What is Midlife?

Not surprisingly, Setiya begins his book by exploring the idea of the midlife “crisis,” which is often the first thing people think of regarding midlife. Whether or not the changes people experience during this “second stage of adulthood” constitute a “crisis” is rife for discussion. 

Setiya describes his own experience: 

I knew I was lucky to be doing what I loved. And yet there was something hollow in the prospect of doing more of it, in the projected sequence of accomplishments stretching through the future to retirement, decline, and death. 

Contrary to the common impression—one often presented in popular culture—that the midlife crisis is a major life event that results in reckless behavior, Setiya describes it as something more subtle, “a predictable dip in life-satisfaction, not the tumultuous angst of the original myth…It is a phase of relative unhappiness that correlates with middle age.” 

And it is this being in the middle with a lot of life behind you with a fair amount of life (one hopes) still ahead that can throw people into something akin to a crisis. It is not as simple as feeling regret for things not yet accomplished, although that can certainly play a role.

A key part of his book discusses whether or not we should even think about our lives in terms of simply what we have or have not accomplished. In setting the stage for deeper investigation, he writes: 

At midlife, retrospection is limited. You command a view of one substantial part but not the whole. And the question is not simply what to do, but what you have done and what you have not done, what to feel and how to think about yourself. There are distinctive problems that arise from the temporality of midlife, from our multiple orientations to the past and the future, from our relation to unrealized possibilities or counterfactuals, from the scale of life and of the projects that occupy it. 

In terms of how middle age people experience this “temporality of midlife,” he goes on to note: 

In middle age, the limited span of human life is no longer an abstraction. You know from the inside what a decade means; those that remain can be counted on one hand. That can be a source of angst. 

People at this point in their lives develop a different relationship with time. The problem of understanding time in this new way is compounded by how we perceive what is and is not possible. Setiya refers to the German economist Hannes Schwandt who learned through his research that 

younger people tend to overestimate how satisfied they will be, while mid-lifers underestimate old age. Middle age is consequently worse than anticipated and at the same time hopes for the future fades…The key to happiness, then, is managing one’s expectations. 

Those of us navigating midlife are confronted by “multiple orientations to the past and the future” which makes life “worse than anticipated” while “at the same time hopes for the future fades.” It’s a tough spot to be in. 

Setiya again refers to his personal experience noting that “my losses were once future; now they are present or past. What were then lives I would not live are ones I am not living and never did.” 

Of course, we cannot live many lives so the range of possibilities for any one life are necessarily limited. Although this limitation is obvious, it is often only later in life that the reality of it starts to take hold. Setiya writes

What connects nostalgia with missing out is not that there was a time when we could have everything, but that there was a time before we had to commit ourselves and thus confront our losses…options attenuate over time. It’s easy not to notice until it is too late.

As I mentioned, I wanted to focus on Setiya’s understanding and definitions of midlife for the purposes of this review. Although some of this sounds bleak, the majority of Midlife: A Philosophical Guide is much more optimistic as Setiya works his way through various philosophies to provide some frameworks for navigating this difficult period of life.

His later chapters all point in various ways to optimism with titles such as “Retrospection,” “Something to Look Forward to,” and “Living in the Present.”

There is too much to get into for this already overlong review, but I found one approach Setiya presents to be particularly interesting.

A key to understanding Midlife: A Philosophical Guide revolves around Satiya’s exploration of the differences between “telic” and “atelic” activities which he defines:

Borrowing jargon from linguists, we can say that some activities are “telic”: they aim at terminal states, at which they are finished and thus exhausted…Driving home is telic: it is done when you get home.


Other activities are “atelic”: they do not aim at a point of termination or exhaustion, a final state in which they have been achieved. As well as walking from A to B, you can go for a walk with no particular destination. This is an atelic activity. So is listening to music, hanging out with friends or family, or thinking about midlife. You can stop doing these things, and eventually you will. But you cannot complete them.

The constant chasing of goals to be “finished and thus exhausted” adds to the angst of midlife:

The sense of repetition and futility, the emptiness of satisfied desire: I am not alone in feeling them. Maybe you have felt them, too, mired in the pursuits of middle age, one after the other, wondering what is next. We are textbook casualties of the midlife crisis, striving to achieve what seems worthwhile, succeeding well enough, yet at the same time restless and unfulfilled.

This line of thought leads to a more succinct definition of a midlife crisis, at least in terms of Setiya’s own experience:

This is how I diagnose my own midlife crisis. It is partly about regret and missing out and fear of death, but mainly a response to the self-subversion of the project-driven life.

Breaking the cycles inherent in a “project-driven life” is essential to finding meaning during this period of life, “You are not what you plan to get done,” he writes. “And the activities you love need not be projects.”

Somewhat intuitively, the recourse to a telic life is an investment in atelic activities:

If my problem is an excessive investment in telic activities, the solution is to love their atelic counterparts, to find meaning in the process, not the project.

This is where I feel creative activities can play a strong role. Although artistic projects usually result in a final work, the process itself is what provides satisfaction. Yes, it feels good to have a completed “project” but that often seems beside the point.

Midlife: A Philosophical Guide provides a rich grounding in understanding this peculiar time of life. Despite investigating a philosophical approach, it is never overly dry or academic. Given its brevity, it’s an excellent starting point for thinking more deeply as we move into the later stages of existence.

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