Knowledge is Power: Escaping the Midlife Feedback Trap
“I’ve done everything I want to,” says Simon. A forty-something professional, he has achieved more prominence in his profession and community than he ever expected. Why, then, does he feel he unsatisfied and restless? “I feel at times like an amazing [mess-up]. I’ve thought of running away to Brazil, changing my name and becoming a hotel clerk. Maybe there’s something deeply psychologically wrong with me.”
Coaches, as well as counselors, friends and spouses, deal with such stories on a regular basis. Here is something they need to know—a fascinating, if perverse, recent finding of both psychology and economics and one that explains much of Simon’s predicament: Like the storied TV sitcom Seinfeld, midlife malaise (a more accurate term than “crisis” because most people sweat through it without a major life disruption), is very often about nothing. In fact, much of its power to perplex and vex comes because it is about nothing.
Recent research finds that in cultures and countries around the world, aging and time fight happiness—until roughly the age of 50, when they switch sides. Their effect can be either mitigated or exacerbated by life events like marriage, career switches, divorce or unemployment, but the effect itself is independent of those things. Think of time as being like a hilly terrain that doesn’t determine your direction but makes walking uphill and downhill very different experiences. Of course, you can walk uphill; it’s just harder. Similarly, you can be satisfied with life in your forties; it’s just harder.
This sets up an odd dynamic, one mapped in a 2016 paper by the University of Zurich economist Hannes Schwandt. Nature wires us to set ambitious goals in our twenties. To motivate us, it makes us unrealistically optimistic about how much satisfaction success will bring. Later, when we meet a goal, our desire for status and success moves the goalposts. We’re not as satisfied as we expect. “How come I’m not happier?” We’re disappointed.
Now comes the strange part. Suppose we have been fortunate in life but feel dissatisfied. We believe our dissatisfaction is unjustified and irrational—a moral failing. That makes us still more dissatisfied. Now our dissatisfaction is bootstrapping itself. As a result, Schwandt says, we’re miserable about the past and pessimistic about the future. It’s what he calls a negative feedback trap, and it is where Simon is.
It’s important to notice that just because the feedback trap is not necessarily about anything, it makes it not a whit less real and difficult. Anyone who has been stuck there, like Simon (or me), can attest to that. Dealing with it requires knowledge and tactics that can help break the loop.
What should coaches know and do? Here are a few takeaways:
Look before You Leap
Humans are bad at attributing the causes of unhappiness. Caught in the feedback trap, we blame our jobs, our marriages, our location, when in fact, quitting, divorcing or relocating may be flailing and failing attempts to run away from the problem. Sometimes, for sure, major life changes are in order. But coaches should be mindful that action, especially if abrupt or discontinuous, may be an ineffective or counterproductive prescription. And they can play a key role in helping clients attribute dissatisfaction accurately.
A Major Accelerant of the Feedback Loop is Shame
People hide their dissatisfaction, often even from spouses, even though understanding and support from trusted friends and allies can be a huge help. Clients may have trouble admitting to and owning what’s going on. Coaches can help by keeping their eyes peeled for the feedback trap and helping surface it when appropriate.
Cognitive-behavior Adjustment is Helpful
Breaking self-denigrating thought patterns can interrupt negative feedback. Of course, coaches are allies, not psychologists. Again, though, they may find opportunities to surface and emphasize positive paths and insights that break negative patterns. By helping clients get unstuck, they can change the internal narrative and help achieve momentum.
Remember Negative Feedback isn’t Forever
As unrealistic optimism is squeezed out in middle age, the feedback cycle tends to peter out. In fact, after midlife, the cycle switches direction and helps to increase life satisfaction. Clients looking for new purpose or direction in midlife should know they’ll need patience, but time is on their side.
Knowledge is Power
Maybe most important, simply making people aware that midlife malaise is not a moral failing or a pathology, and that it often hits hardest those who have the most to be thankful for, can bring a deep sigh of relief and thus help inoculate against self-blame. That’s valuable for coaches to know, too. Together, client and coach can build on a message like: “There’s nothing wrong with me. My priorities, my expectations and even my brain are in transition to a new and happier stage of life. It’s an exciting journey, and I’ve got an ally right here beside me.”
Coaches are uniquely situated to bear that important message.