Updated: Feb 18, 2021
As with all reviews on this website, our goal is not to provide a complete overview of the book; rather, it is to examine how the book relates to the meaning of life.
Midlife: A Philosophical Guide by Kieran Setiya was published in 2017 by Princeton University Press. The book is about 160 pages of reading text, and about 40 pages of references, acknowledgments, and all that other good stuff everyone tends to skip over.
But what is a midlife crisis? Well, it is kind of one of those indescribable things that happen to some people, but not all people, that occurs when you look back on your life and realize that it is probably halfway over. The infinite possibilities of who you could have become quickly converge into an infinitesimal number of eventualities. Thirsting for the fountain of youth, you end up buying a new car, having an extramarital affair, reading Man's Search for Meaning, or simply creating endev42. Don't worry though; you're not alone. Gilgamesh, Odysseus, Leo Tolstoy, the slightly overweight Peter Parker from Into the Spider-Verse, and many others throughout history have also wrestled with their inevitable downhill tumble. Yet despite all of this, studies have shown that meaning only increases after the midlife bubble pops (as discovered by Susan Whitbourne).
Setiya compiles in this work the history of the midlife crisis, citing that the first appearance of the phenomena was in Edmund Bergler's book The Revolt of the Middle-Age Man. Yet, it is Daniel Levinson who likely first popularized the term in The Seasons of a Man’s Life, which was the result of a 10-year study and published in 1978. Embedded in pop culture, the meme caught on, inspiring board games, movies, books, and many other oddities.
Another interesting study mentioned in the book is the Midlife in the United States (MIDUS) study from 1995, which was a survey given to over 7,000 individual between the ages of 25 and 75. The survey included a 2-hour questionnaire and a 45-minute phone call. Since then, there have been several follow-up MIDUS studies. What the study showed first and foremost is that most people not only survive their midlife crisis, they go on to find meaning thereafter and happiness increases. Furthermore, a related study by David G. Blanchflower and Andrew J. Oswald found that happiness has a U-shaped curve, with the probability of depression peaking at midlife as shown below.
As a follow up to the study, primatologists also found a similar curve among great apes.
Reviewing a number of other studies, books, etc. Setiya comes up with two rules to prevent an existential crisis:
1) Care about something other than yourself.
2) In your job, your relationships, your spare time, you must make room for activities with existential value.
However, if you find yourself having a midlife crisis, reminiscing about youth long gone, beware of change that may put you on a different path in life. Or as Setiya says:
...while there are reasons to change one’s life—frustrating jobs, failed marriages, poor health— the appeal of change itself can be deceptive. Because there is value in having options, you will miss having them: an argument for nostalgia. But the value is easy to overrate. It is silly to think that having options could make up for reaching outcomes you would not prefer, considered alone. Think twice before you wreck your home. Is it the space inside you hate, or the fact that it has walls?
Setiya also notes the following regarding the passage of time:
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 to you can be counted on one hand. That can be a source of angst.
This insight comes after reviewing the life and works of the British writer Virginia Woolf. Throughout her works, she frequently contemplates her life path and her choice not to have children. Was it wrong of her to put her work before her family? She eventually decided it is something she cannot regret, and neither should we once midlife sets in, no matter the journey we chose. Clearly, she devoted her life to something meaningful, albeit it came as a personal cost.
Setiya also addressed the idea of immortality, and why we fear postmortem nonexistence rather than prenatal nonexistence. Everyone fears death, the return to nothingness, but no-one fears the nothingness from which we were birthed. Everyone wants to live forever, but no-one really cares to do so retroactively... from the big bang onward. Most of what gives life meaning is currently considered telic in nature. That is, it has an end. Every goal we set up, the writing of a book, getting married, landing that dream job, eventually is accomplished, or it is not. Sometimes when the goal is completed, we are left with an ironic emptiness. What next? What happens in the future when ending poverty, injustice, etc. are no longer issues? A future where we no longer have to work? Setiya implores as such to find meaning in not only things telic in nature but also those that are atelic—activities that have no end in sight. Spend time with friends, go for a long walk, enjoy the beauty of the universe, and ponder the philosophical meaning of it all.
Should you find yourself stuck in a rut, stuck in a midlife crisis, Setiya suggests trying a bit of meditation to find the right path forward. Overall, Midlife: A Philosophical Guide is a worth the read, and it is the first book I've come across that tackles the history of the midlife crisis and how the crisis relates to building meaning in life. As such, the book is given the rating below:
Overall - 7 Meaning of Life Relevance - 5 Uniqueness – 7
Have you had your life crisis yet? If so, comment below with your thoughts on the subject.
If you lose touch with existential value, if you find no place in your life for the activities of the gods— ones that make life worth living to begin with— you risk a midlife crisis.
- Kieran Setiya