Mid-life crisis: how not to be Reggie Perrin
Recent studies show that in our 40s and 50s, levels of happiness and life satisfaction dip to their lowest. Here's how you can deal with those turbulent middle years, writes Nick Page
Something strange happens to men in middle age. Not all men. Many sail serenely through it with no issues at all. That's fine. I'm very pleased for them. For the rest of us, middle age is a more turbulent sea. The German term for mid-life crisis is Torschlusspanik - "shut-door panic". And lots of men in their 40s and 50s feel that the door has closed.
The ageing process doesn't help. Aches and pains used to disappear quickly, now they hang around for months. Hair no longer grows on the head, and you can't stop it growing out of your ears. You can't sit down, stand up or pick up any object without emitting a grunt. But it's not the age, it's the anxiety - those dark nights of the soul, staring at the ceiling, pondering the ultimate question of middle age: "Is that it?"
The ubiquity of these feelings is why David Nobbs, who died last week, was able to create such an enduring character in Reggie Perrin, the corporate man trapped in a meaningless life. "One day I'll die," says Reggie, during a seminar on instant puddings, "and on my grave it will say: 'Here lies Reginald Iolanthe Perrin. He didn't know the names of the trees and the flowers, but he knew the rhubarb crumble sales figures for Schleswig-Holstein'."
Reggie, of course, faked his own death to break free, only to find his new life wasn't any better. Other men make less drastic attempts to escape. Some take up the triathlon and wear unfeasibly tight Lycra. "I want to prove that I can still do it," said a marathon-running friend. "I'm fitter than guys half my age."
Some change their appearance. The jeans grow tighter than their Lycra. A tattoo appears. Then there's the sports car because they think buying something will cure their sadness. But they end up just as unhappy, only at a higher speed.
When the shut-door panic hits, we all look for ways out. Me? At the age of 54, I built a shed. Well, I say "built". I turned the rickety structure in the garden of the house I share with my wife and three daughters into a place where I could work. As a writer, this was my Porsche. All the great writers had sheds: Dylan Thomas, Roald Dahl, George Bernard Shaw. But more than that, I wanted a place where I could process all the stuff I was going through.
The book that emerged I called The Dark Night of the Shed - a book that turned out to be an exploration of men, mid-life, spirituality and sheds. As my previous books are mainly about biblical history, this proved to be something of a departure, though the history of the mid-life crisis goes back further than you might think.
The first recorded use of the phrase "middle age" is in William Langland's poem, Piers Plowman. Written in 1400, it tells of a man who falls asleep and dreams of a quest to find the purpose of life. At one point he meets Imagination, who advises him to "make amends in middle age before your strength fails". What could be more mid-life than this? It's about changing and finding a purpose. And it begins with a long nap.
For the first serious analysis of the problems of middle age, we have to fast forward to the early 20th Century. Carl Jung, who had a mid-life breakdown of his own, argued that life was a game of two halves. The first half is about building a career, a home, a useful place in society. But the second half is about becoming a whole, well-rounded person. Jung saw middle age not as a time of decline but as crucial stage in developing wholeness and maturity.
A similar idea lay behind the thinking of the psychologist Elliot Jacques who, in 1965, coined the phrase "mid-life crisis". Jacques examined the work of more than 300 major artists before and after the ages of 35 to 39 and observed that the "hot from the fire" creativity of their youth was replaced by a more mature, "sculpted creativity". He concluded that the transformation was caused by a "mid-life crisis" or the sudden realisation that, sooner or later, you were going to pop your clogs.
Studies show that in our 40s and 50s, levels of happiness and life satisfaction dip to their lowest and psychological distress is at its height. Forty-five is the most common age for depression to be diagnosed. This is a complex situation with many factors, but in my many conversations with "men of a certain age", I sensed an underlying lack of meaning and purpose and a sense of having failed in some way.
Many of them had spent their life climbing the corporate ladder, only to find it was leaning against the wrong wall. At one event where I was speaking, I met a judge. He'd spent his life striving to reach that position, only to find that when he got there he felt as empty as ever. A friend returned from a long career teaching overseas. He saw a TV ad featuring men admiring their DIY handiwork and saying: "I did that." He burst into tears - he felt there was nothing in his life of which he could say: "I did that."
In Arthur Miller's Death Of A Salesman, Willy Loman's son, Biff, cries out at his funeral: "He had the wrong dreams … He never knew who he was." (Miller wrote that play in a shed, which he had built.) Many of us have the wrong dreams. We don't need a new Porsche, we need a new purpose.
As I rebuilt my shed, I came to the conclusion that the problems of middle age are spiritual. I realise we live in a time when spirituality is as unfashionable as flared jeans. But sod that. I'm middle-aged. I'm allowed to be unfashionable.
Mid-life is a time when we should have the confidence to be honest with ourselves. You can remain a grumpy old git, a simmering mass of sadness and anger and loss. You can blame it all on other people and run away to repeat the whole process with someone new. Or you can find a new meaning and purpose.
I've experienced a deepening of my faith. I had become a kind of Reggie Perrin Christian - faithfully attending company meetings but increasingly thinking "Is that it?" and longing for something deeper - a mid-faith crisis, if you like. The shed became a sanctuary - a kind of home-made chapel where I go most mornings for contemplation. To know that I am loved, that my life matters and that I have a purpose puts all the anxieties of mid-life into perspective.
As the Psalmist says: "Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil. Because I've got a really good shed."
Or something like that.
The Dark Night of the Shed by Nick Page is published by Hodder & Stoughton priced £14.99