BY PAM LOBLEY
NOW THAT'S FUNNY
A mid-life crisis is a time-honored tradition among Americans. It’s been the subject of movies, books, and jokes. It has resulted in divorces, sports car purchases and some very unfortunate toupees. Now, it seems, humans aren’t the only ones who experience a downturn in happiness in their middle years. Apes and chimpanzees do, too.
Some of them even go bananas.
As reported by National Geographic, a study of 500 chimps and apes at zoos in five countries charted the primates’ happiness. Caretakers for these animals filled out questionnaires based on observations of the animals and their behaviors at all different ages. They evaluated the animals’ well-being by observing their social interactions, mood, and accomplishment of goals. They plotted the results on a graph according to age, and sure enough, the middle aged primates showed a dip in happiness. The curve went back up again as the animals aged.
I don’t want to nit-pick – but what do these animals have to be so unhappy about?
The term mid-life crisis was coined in 1965 by Jacques Elliott, and has come to indicate that time in a person’s life when death is a pending reality, not just some point in the distance.
Numerically, you are closer to death than you are to birth. At this point, too, you may realize that many of your cherished dreams will never be realized. You reckon your youthful goals with your present circumstances and fall short. You may feel that life is passing so quickly that you have very little control over your own destiny, and you may feel either disillusionment, or a panicky urge to grab whatever pleasure you can before it’s too late.
I’m going to stop now before I kill myself.
The apes feel like this too? Why? They don’t have jobs or retirement funds, and they certainly don’t care about their weight or appearance. What could be depressing them?
Perhaps, as Alexander Weiss, the leader of this study, suggests, there is an evolutionary reason behind the crisis. In other words, the gloominess is a naturally occurring physiological experience that serves to make the species stronger in the long run.
Feelings of discontentment may be nature's way of motivating us to "strike while the iron is hot," said Weiss. He maintains that though you feel crummy, your brain could be tricking you action. Your low feelings become a motivating force which then prods you to improve your situation while you’re still in your prime.
That puts a nice shine on it, anyway. Next time I feel like slurping down half a bottle of Chardonnay and a box of Krispy Kremes (you know you’ve been there!), I won’t feel bad. I’ll just know I’m part of a vast Darwinian evolutionary plan.
Knowing that mid-life unhappiness is an organic and temporary feature of life might help us all to cope as we slog through those years. It could keep us all from going ape just because we turned 50.
Pam Lobley writes the “Now That’s Funny” column. Check out her blog: Better Living Through Chaos! Follow her on twitter @plobley.