When he was thirty-five, Kieran Setiya had a midlife crisis.
Objectively, he was a successful philosophy professor at the University
of Pittsburgh, who had written the books “Practical
” and “Knowing Right
from Wrong
.” But suddenly his
existence seemed unsatisfying. Looking inward, he felt “a disconcerting
mixture of nostalgia, regret, claustrophobia, emptiness, and fear”;
looking forward, he saw only “a projected sequence of accomplishments
stretching through the future to retirement, decline, and death.” What
was the point of life? How would it all end? The answers appeared newly
obvious. Life was pointless, and would end badly.

Unlike some people—an acquaintance of mine, for example, left his wife
and children to move to Jamaica and marry his pot dealer—Setiya
responded to his midlife crisis productively. In “Midlife: A
Philosophical Guide
” (Princeton),
he examines his own freakout. “Midlife” has a self-soothing quality: it
is, Setiya writes, “a self-help book in that it is an attempt to help
myself.” By methodically analyzing his own unease, he hopes to lessen
its hold on him.

Setiya finds that the history of the midlife crisis is both very long
and very short. On the one hand, he identifies a text from Twelfth
Dynasty Egypt, circa 2000 B.C., as the earliest description of a
midlife crisis and suggests that Dante might have had one at the age of
thirty-five. (“Midway on life’s journey, I found myself / In dark woods,
the right road lost.”) On the other, he learns that the term itself
wasn’t coined until 1965, when a psychologist named Elliott Jaques
wrote an essay called “Death and the Mid-life Crisis.” (Jaques quotes a
patient’s eloquent lament: “Up till now, life has seemed an endless
upward slope, with nothing but the distant horizon in view. Now suddenly
I seem to have reached the crest of the hill, and there stretching ahead
is the downward slope with the end of the road in sight.”) John Updike
published “Rabbit Redux” in 1971. (“What you haven’t done by thirty
you’re not likely to do.”) Richard Ford published “The Sportswriter” in
1986. (“You can dream your way through an otherwise fine life, and never
wake up.”) In between, Gail Sheehy’s book “Passages: Predictable
Crises of Adult Life,” published in 1977, explored the midlife crisis from a psychological
point of view. Sheehy, an accomplished investigative journalist—she also
wrote “The Secret of Grey Gardens”—became an anthropologist of middle
age. After interviewing many midlifers, she concluded that women, too,
experienced midlife crises; they just had them earlier than men. “The
years 35 to 39 are the infidelity years for women,” she told People,
in 1976. Having “packed their last child off to school,” middle-aged
women “want to restore illusions of youthful appearance, romantic love.”

After Sheehy’s book was published, everybody seemed to be having a
midlife crisis. Perhaps, Setiya writes, people married too early during
the conservative postwar decades, then reëvaluated their lives as the
counterculture flowered. On the whole, though, research on the frequency
of midlife crises tends to be equivocal. Many long-term studies of
well-being show that people actually get happier as they age. (This lends
credence, Setiya suggests, to Aristotle’s view that we grow into a
“prime of life,” with the body achieving its fullest development at
thirty-five and the mind at forty-nine.) Other studies show that there
is a “U-shaped curve” to life satisfaction, such that we’re happiest
when we’re young and old and unhappiest in between. (There are even
studies of great apes, conducted by zoologists, which show that they get
sad in middle age.) “Shit happens in midlife,” Setiya writes, “with kids
and parents, work and health.” He is drawn to the work of the German
economist Hannes Schwandt, which shows that “younger people tend to
overestimate how satisfied they will be, while midlifers underestimate
old age.” According to this theory, we could avoid midlife crises by
calibrating our expectations.

If you’re a jerk, it’s useful to have a midlife crisis; it gives your
irresponsible behavior an existential sheen. Almost certainly, the term
is overused. Still, having experienced a midlife crisis himself, Setiya
ends up convinced that they are an ordinary part of a well-lived life.
He identifies a number of intellectual traps into which even the most
levelheaded people can fall. Many have to do with the way we think about
freedom and choice. Because the lives of middle-aged people have settled
into more or less permanent shapes, for instance, people in midlife
often become nostalgic for the feeling of choosing: they think, I want
to do my job because I want to do my job, not because I need to pay the
bills. With philosophical exactitude, Setiya explains the flaws in this
kind of thinking. Suppose, he writes, that you can have just one of
three desirable things—A, B, or C, in order of preference. Because
there’s value in having a choice, there are situations in which a choice
between B and C is actually preferable to A. Even so, the satisfaction
offered by choice has a limit. Most of the time, the value of B or C
plus the value of choosing won’t actually add up to the value of A. It’s
exciting to choose a new career, but you’ll probably end up with an
inferior job; it’s fun to date again, but your new spouse probably won’t
be better than your current one.

Some middle-aged people wonder if they shoulda, coulda, woulda, or spend
time wishing they could undo their worst mistakes; Setiya, for instance,
wonders if he should’ve become a doctor rather than a philosophy
professor. He urges the middle-aged to think in detail about what the
alternative realities they contemplate would actually entail. Thanks to
the “butterfly effect,” he argues, the alternative world in which you
hadn’t made those mistakes would almost certainly exclude many of the
things you currently value. (Had you chosen a different career, your
children might not exist.) Setiya points out that the decisions that vex
us most in retrospect also tend to be choices between “incommensurable
goods.” Should you have worked on your novel or spent time with your
family? Become a musician or an engineer? In Setiya’s view, regrets over
such choices are good signs, since they reflect a healthy,
multidimensional appreciation of life. “To wish for a life without loss
is to wish for a profound impoverishment in the world or in your
capacity to engage with it,” he writes. (Someone with a darker
sensibility might have put it differently: there is no escaping loss, no
matter how rich your life is.)

To many people, the increasing proximity of death is the worst thing
about middle age. It doesn’t seem to bother Setiya very much: he points
out that immortality would probably get frustrating after a while, and
suggests getting over your own death in advance by imagining yourself
coming to terms with the death of a friend. Instead, what really
unnerves him is midlife ennui—the creeping sense of aimlessness and
exhaustion that sometimes overtakes people as they age. The problem,
Setiya finds, is that there’s something intrinsically self-defeating
about getting things done. Once you’ve done them, you can’t do them
anymore. “Having a child, writing a book, saving a life—the completion
of your project may be of value, but it means that the project can no
longer be your guide,” he writes. There’s a sense in which all
goal-directed behavior is ironic: “In pursuing a goal, you are trying to
exhaust your interaction with something good, as if you were to make
friends for the sake of saying goodbye.” Setiya quotes Arthur
Schopenhauer, who argued that life “swings like a pendulum to and fro
between pain and boredom”; according to Schopenhauer’s rather grim view
of existence, we spend our days struggling, then are rewarded for
struggle with emptiness. “This is the problem with being consumed by
plans,” Setiya concludes. “They are schemes for which success can only
mean cessation.”

In an effort to evade this conundrum, Setiya brings out the
philosophical heavy artillery. He draws on an Aristotelian distinction
between “incomplete” and “complete” activities. Building yourself a
house is an incomplete activity, because its end goal—living in the
finished house—is not something you can experience while you are
building it. Building a house and living in it are fundamentally
different things. By contrast, taking a walk in the woods is a complete
activity: by walking, you are doing the very thing you wish to do. The
first kind of activity is “telic”—that is, directed toward an end, or
telos. The second kind is “atelic”: something you do for its own sake.

The secret to avoiding Schopenhauerian ennui, Setiya argues, is either
to do things that are complete and atelic or to find ways of engaging
with your projects atelically. Setiya cautions against the “false allure
of early retirement,” since “there is nothing inherently telic about
work”; instead of quitting your job, you might find ways to engage with
it atelically, as a practice rather than a project. Certain middle-aged
habits—golf, yoga, gardening—can help to create an atelic mind-set.
Setiya recommends mindfulness meditation; buying a sports car may also be
permissible, if it includes “a switch in focus from the value of getting
there to the value of being on the way.”

Is it disappointing that “Midlife” arrives at the conclusion that
“living in the present” is the solution to middle-aged unhappiness? A
little. One might wonder if all that philosophy was really necessary.
Setiya has the whole history of thought at his disposal. Drawing on
Heidegger, he could have urged middle-aged people to find new ways of
“disclosing” the world to themselves, perhaps by acquiring new or deeper
skills. Adapting the work of Derek Parfit, he could have argued that
selves are less real than we think, and that midlife crises are,
therefore, about nothing. With Douglas Hofstadter, he might have
concluded that it’s relationships that matter, since the patterns of
thought and feeling encoded in our neurons will repeat themselves in the
brains of the people we love, like musical echoes. Who knows what other
intriguing suggestions Setiya might’ve come up with if he’d pillaged the
history of philosophy with abandon? While reading “Midlife,” I yearned
for such strange and counterintuitive ideas. But perhaps it’s right that
they were missing. There’s something a little midlife-crisis about
insisting on an entirely new way of thinking; maybe the answers are just
the answers, and are actually quite simple. If that’s the case, then
“Midlife” teaches a lesson about midlife: it’s sometimes best to go with the flow.