The midlife crisis has always been seen as a very human thing. Documented by sociologists in over 65 countries, the midlife dip in self-esteem, contentment, vivaciousness and happiness, is a universal phenomenon amongst people and has generally been attributed to economic, psychological and sociological factors. Until now. An international team of primatologists have recently discovered that great apes, such as chimpanzees and orangutans, experience a similar midlife loss of happiness — a discovery that suggests that the midlife crisis might be biological as well as social.
Up until recently, social scientists have explained the mid-life phenomenon thusly: Around the age of 50, human beings have lost their drive to be the best at what they do, but are still shouldered with the responsibility of family, social obligations and work. Coincidentally, it is around the same time that, through declining health and physical strength, a person must begin to face their own mortality. In the years that follow, however, people have less responsibility to care for others and, having accepted their nearing death, are more likely to seek enjoyment for their remaining years. When put on a graph, the average person's happiness takes on a U shape, as they are happier at the beginning and end of their life.
Behavioral economist Andrew Oswald began to suspect, however, that the previous explanation of the midlife crisis was far to willing to overlook biological elements. He then, with the help of primatologist and evolutionary psychologist Alexander Weiss, reached out to primate experts around the globe to help compose a "census of well-being" among 336 chimpanzees and 172 orangutans of all ages and from various locations. Researchers asked the apes' keepers a series of questions created to gauge the sense of effectiveness, pleasure-seeking drive and mood of their apes across the lifespan.
From the LA Times:
Keepers were asked to rate the positive or negative mood of each subject and to gauge the degree of pleasure the animal derived from social situations. A third question was how successful each great ape was in achieving its goals — whether winning a mate, commanding the attention of a fellow member of its social group or gaining hold of an out-of-reach toy. Finally, the study authors asked keepers to consider how happy they would be if they had to live as their chimpanzees or orangutans for a week.
What researchers discovered was that, when plotted to a graph, apes' happiness throughout their lives took on the same U shape as their human counterparts. Middle-aged chimps and orangutans were less likely to get what they want and experienced higher levels of anxiety than their younger or older companions. (They were also much more likely to dig out their old Dinosaur Jr. t-shirts and get really into road cycling.)
While most apes are highly social animals, they are not burdened by the same societal pressures that people are (employment, awareness of mortality, social obligations, etc.) nor do they gauge social situations with the same emotional capacity. The fact that they still experience midlife crises, as the study's findings show, suggest that the phenomenon serves some sort of evolutionary purpose. Says neuropsychologist Stacey Wood, "For social scientists who saw shifts in happiness in strictly human terms, the findings were a forceful reminder that people have not evolved as far as we may think beyond the great apes."
Oswald, the study's lead author suggests that people should take comfort in these new developments, saying, "This suggests that [the midlife crisis] is completely normal, and that it's apparently out of your control."
So there you go. Buy that motorcycle. Get the band back together. Hit on the college kid at the bar. Science says it's okay.