The Genetic Origins of a Midlife Crisis

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A new study finds that apes too suffer from the condition

A new study claims that neither is the midlife crisis a myth, nor can it be blamed on one’s career, family life or the stress of modern life. But it may be ingrained in our genes.

Researchers have found that the ‘U-shaped’ pattern, where people are most satisfied with life in their earliest and latest years, reaching a ‘nadir’ in middle age, is not just restricted to humans, but also seen in chimpanzees and orangutans. The study, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, found that just like humans, the animals’ happiness was generally high in youth, declined in middle age and rose again into old age.

Often regarded as a cliché of modern life, the midlife crisis is said to afflict humans somewhere between the mid-thirties and late fifties. Emotions during this crisis range from a marked sense of boredom to dread about what the future entails. Many even make drastic changes to their lifestyles.

The researchers, who included psychologists, primatologists and economists, wanted to understand why human happiness follows an approximate U-shape through life. But since this U-shape remains constant even when adjusted statistically for things like education, income and marriage, they looked at apes to check if its origins are biological.

A total of 508 chimpanzees and orangutans of varying ages, from zoos, sanctuaries and research centres, were made part of this research. A short questionnaire used for measuring wellbeing and happiness in humans was modified for use in non-human primates. The animals were then assessed by zoo keepers, researchers and caretakers who had worked with the subjects.

Psychologist and lead author Dr Alexander Weiss of University of Edinburgh states that humans, chimps and orangutans share many similarities beyond genetics and physiology. For instance, chimpanzees and humans face similar social pressures and stress factors.

According to the researchers: ‘Our results imply that human wellbeing’s curved shape is not uniquely human and that, although it may be partly explained by aspects of human life and society, its origins may lie partly in the biology we share with great apes.’