Man Isn’t Alone; Apes Also Suffer Midlife Crises

August 30, 2013, 7:38 p.m. ET

Man Isn’t Alone; Apes Also Suffer Midlife Crises

ROBERT M. SAPOLSKY

The petroleum industry is still absorbing the recent, surprising resignation of Peter Voser, CEO of Royal Dutch Shell. Mr. Voser had been riding high with many successes during his stewardship of the petroleum giant. Yet, at the peak of his game at age 54, he resigned, wanting a “lifestyle change,” and to spend more time with his family. If this constitutes a midlife crisis for Mr. Voser, he appears to have dealt with it with a steady hand. But there is no shortage of people, amid their own midlife crises, going off the rails in ways both small—sudden obsessive exercising, immersion in bungee jumping, the imprudent hair transplant—and large—affairs, crackpot investments, substance abuse, or starting a “cultural revolution” in the company.The midlife crisis is a florid manifestation of a well-documented phenomenon: When you examine people’s levels of happiness, contentment and optimism, they tend to be at their lowest in middle-age. This produces a “U-shaped” curve with high levels of happiness during early adulthood, the trough in middle age, and a climb out the other side into old age (which persists as long as health remains good). This midlife dip has been documented in more than 50 countries of varying wealth, and is independent of various economic and demographic factors.

What causes this dip? Economic speculations concern financial pressures on sandwich generation middle-agers, with costs for mortgages, orthodontists and tuition, as well as the threat of the huge financial demands of an ailing parent. In contrast, psychologists have emphasized the different psychological challenges of different stages of life. Early adulthood is a time of expanding vistas, ambition and promise; stressors are coped with by conquering them. In contrast, healthy old age is when stressors are coped with by accommodating them; there is greater control of negative emotions, and the clutter of acquaintances has been pared down to the actual friends.

Middle age dangles in between, with the dip in well-being full of the poignancy of the human predicament. Plateaus are achieved in time for us to question whether they were worth it, and things that will never be accomplished loom larger, as we simultaneously accept and deny our mortality.

But as we wallow in this sturm und drang, along comes a study that upends this thinking. In a late 2012 paper in the prestigious Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Alexander Weiss of the University of Edinburgh in Scotland and colleagues demonstrated something remarkable: Other ape species also have the midlife dip in well-being.

Careful science has been done on personality and mood in other primates, tapping into issues of how often an individual grooms or plays with someone else, sits in contact with them, or has positive expressions and vocalizations. The researchers sent a questionnaire to zoo keepers world-wide, asking them to rate aspects of the mood and relations of their ape charges. Data were collected on more than 300 chimps and 170 orangutans—that is a lot of apes. And a clear answer came back. In both species and both sexes, there was the identical U-shaped curve as in humans, with well-being crashing in these apes’ middle age.

Middle-aged chimps and orangutans don’t struggle to come to terms with having hit a glass ceiling in their dominance hierarchy, don’t pause amid eating grubs to wonder, “Is this all there is?” They don’t morbidly foresee adult-size diapers and inevitable death in their future. The authors artfully conclude that they really don’t understand what this pattern is about in these close relatives. But whatever the midlife dip of happiness is in humans, it probably transcends the specifics of human culture and psyche, and instead taps into something much deeper and older. So good luck to Mr. Voser and the rest of us when we navigate this stage of life. And congratulations to the other apes, who have avoided dealing with their midlife malaise by buying sports cars.

—Mr. Sapolsky is a professor of biology and neurology at Stanford University and the author of many books.

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (www.heroinnovator.com), the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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