Why Midlife Isn’t as Stressful as You Think It Might Be

New research on stress shows that life gets better once you’re past your 20s.

The concept of the midlife crisis prevails in the popular literature and is, in fact, so ingrained that the phrase, “I’m having a midlife crisis” is a common reason given for any and all unusual behavior in an adult anywhere from 30 to 50 or 55 years of age. However, the research literature consistently fails to support its validity. The data challenging the notion appear regularly in academic journals, but these appear to have little impact on the public’s perception of its universality. The bottom line from this work is that personality and related psychological qualities such as depression and anxiety show no discernible peaks or valleys that are clearly tied to midlife.
The latest study to enter into the academic discourse takes a new approach by examining daily stress levels of adults ranging in age from the early 20s to late 70s. As noted by Pennsylvania State University’s David Almeida and colleagues (2023), “when considering psychological factors related to mental and physical health, few are as pervasive as stress” (p. 515). If any quality would be key to understanding midlife changes, then, stress would seem to be a primary candidate. This study’s findings, as you will learn, add weight to the argument that midlife is a time of gradual change rather than crisis. Additional findings also help answer the question of who is most stressed and when.

Using Daily Diaries to Measure Stress

Almeida and his fellow researchers in this groundbreaking study had as their data source the vast repository known as the National Study of Daily Experiences (NSDE). The nearly 34,000 data points from their sample of 2,845 adults were gathered from three “bursts” of eight consecutive days’ worth of ratings on frequency of stressful events and emotional reactions to those events. Respondents provided their ratings at the end of each 24-hour period over the eight-day span, and they did so three times across the 20 years of the study.

You can get a sense of what these ratings looked like by taking stock of your own stressors in the categories of arguments, avoiding arguments, work overloads, home overloads, network stressors (friends or family members), and miscellaneous or “other.” The research team used the criterion of having at least one stressor in a day to count as a “stress day.” It may not surprise you to learn that at least one stressor was reported by the sample participants on 39 percent of all possible days.
Next, think about how this stressful event impacted your emotions. The Penn State–led study provided respondents with these possible affective reactions: fidgety, nervous, worthless, so sad that nothing could cheer you up, everything was an effort, and hopeless. The ratings to be used for these emotions were from 0 (none of the time) to 4 (all of the time).
The advantage of the daily diary approach is that it taps into stress levels in real-time rather than relying on some aggregate estimate that respondents might provide based on their recall of what their stress levels tend to be like. Again, putting yourself in the place of these respondents, how might you lump all your stressors and emotional reactions to those stressors into one global rating rather than thinking more specifically about individual events? The chances are that your global ratings would be less accurate but also more difficult to make.

The 20-Year Trajectory of Stress

Feeding their daily diary ratings into their statistical software, which also took into account the impact of sex, education, and race on age-related patterns, the authors arrived at the incontrovertible conclusions that not only did older adults report fewer stressful days but also that overall stressful events declined by a remarkable 11 percent over the course of the 20-year period.
Thus, stressful events of all kinds showed a pronounced downward progression from the decades of the 20s to the 70s. Rather than midlife representing a peak of stress exposure, it was only a waystation downhill from about 50 percent of days with stress in the mid-20s to 25 percent for those in their late 70s, with negative affect showing a similar de-escalation across the decades.
What’s more, looking longitudinally over the two decades of the study, it appeared that the original 20-somethings were also at their high point of stress and stress reactivity. That 11 percent decline over the sample as a whole actually represented an average. For younger adults, the decline was 47 percent. In the words of the authors, for young adults, “their stress profile improves as they age” (p. 520).
Another feature of the midlife data that further challenges the idea of the midlife crisis was the flattening of the stress reactivity curve. Indeed, for participants ages 55 and older, there was no further dip in the degree to which stressors bothered them.
One might conclude, then, that when it comes to stress over the adult years, it is “all downhill,” but in this case, the downhill is in a positive direction. If, as the authors conclude, “stress is a speedometer of our life course,” that speedometer shows a clear slowing, so that “growing older may allow us to lead less stressful lives” (p. 522).

What If You’re Over 25 and Still Stressed?

It’s possible that, despite all the evidence showing the beneficial effects of growing older on stress levels, you as an individual are bucking the trend. It may or may not be reassuring to think that if you just wait long enough, your stress speedometer may eventually reach a pleasant cruising level. In the meantime, there are steps you can take to help lower both your stress exposure and reactivity.
Borrowing a page from the less-stressed older adults, and in line with interpretations of their data that the authors offer, it may be worthwhile to consider adopting a “positivity bias.” Your life may be full of what seem like insurmountable stressful events, but is there some way to offset them? Can you, as some older adults appear able to do, balance those off with positive situations that you purposefully seek out?
From another perspective, the Almeida et al. study is consistent with the general cognitive model of stress appraisal, which emphasizes the interpretations that people make of the events in their lives as causes of psychological turmoil. Can you reframe a so-called “negative event,” such as an argument with your partner, as a step toward greater mutual understanding?
It may also be reassuring to look at the data from this study as providing their own unique counterpoint to the drumbeat of midlife crisis messages in the popular media. Viewing your own development as a continuous process rather than a set of discrete stages can help you regard stressors not as inevitable features of your life but as points along the way toward greater mastery over your emotional well-being.
To sum up, knowing the facts about midlife can only help you separate fact from fiction as you seek a path that will not only ease stress but also put you on the path to fulfillment.

psychology today

1 reply
  1. Maryam .farajkhah
    Maryam .farajkhah says:

    Hi in my opinion Students should be taught very simple ways to control stress in schools from elementary school age, such as deep breathing or drinking water when angry, etc.


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