When you think about someone having a midlife crisis, you probably think of a man getting divorced, stepping out with a younger woman, and buying a sports car. But my guest today says the often jokey, mockable trope of the midlife crisis we have in our popular culture discounts the fact that the sense of dissatisfaction people can feel in their middle years is quite real, and that the questions it raises are profond, philosophical, and worth earnestly grappling with.
His name is Kieran Setiya, and he’s a professor of philosophy and the author of Midlife: A Philosophical Guide. Kieran and I first discuss what researchers have uncovered about whether the midlife crisis really exists, how it might be better described as a kind of midlife malaise, and how Kieran’s own sense of life dissatisfaction began when he was only in his mid-thirties. We then explore the philosophical reframing that can help in dealing with the existential issues that the journey into midlife often raises, including feeling like you’ve missed out on certain possibilities and feeling regret over your mistakes and misfortunes. We also talk about how to shift out of one primary cause of the midlife malaise — the sense that your life is merely about putting out fires and checking off boxes.
Resources Related to the Podcast
- Seasons of a Man’s Life by Daniel Levinson
- AoM series on Levinson’s research
- Transformations: Growth and Change in Adult Life by Roger Gould
- Passages: Predictable Crises of Adult Life by Gail Sheehy
- Orville Gilbert Brim’s MacArthur study on “Midlife in the United States”
- David Branchflower’s study on the U-shaped curve of happiness
- John Stuart Mill
- Sunday Firesides: Youth Is Not an Identity
- AoM Podcast #770: Philosophical Tools for Living the Good Life
- AoM Podcast #620: How to Deal With Life’s Regrets
- AoM Article: The George Bailey Technique — Mentally Erase Your Blessings for Greater Joy and Optimism
- AoM Podcast #527: Father Wounds, Male Spirituality, and the Journey to the Second Half of Life With Richard Rohr
- AoM Podcast #598: Journeying From the First to the Second Half of Life With James Hollis
Connect With Kieran Setiya
Listen to the Podcast! (And don’t forget to leave us a review!)
Listen to the episode on a separate page.
Subscribe to the podcast in the media player of your choice.
Listen ad-free on Stitcher Premium; get a free month when you use code “manliness” at checkout.
Click here to see a full list of our podcast sponsors.
Read the Transcript!
If you appreciate the full text transcript, please consider donating to AoM. It will help cover the costs of transcription and allow others to enjoy it as well. Thank you!
Brett McKay: Brett McKay here, and welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness podcast. Now, when you think about someone having a midlife crisis, you probably think of a man getting divorced, stepping out with a younger woman, and buying a sports car. But my guest today says the often jokey, mockable trope of the midlife crisis we have in our popular culture, discounts the fact, the sense of dissatisfaction people can feel in their middle years, is quite real. And that the questions it raises are profound, philosophical, and worth earnestly grappling with. His name is Kieran Setiya. He’s a Professor of Philosophy, and the author of Midlife: A Philosophical Guide. Kieran and I first discussed what researchers have uncovered about whether the midlife crisis really exists, how it might be better described as a kind of midlife malaise, and how Kieran’s own sense of life dissatisfaction began when he was only in his mid-30s. We then explore the philosophical reframing that can help in dealing with the existential issues that the journey into midlife often raises, including feeling like you’ve missed out on certain possibilities, and feeling regret over your mistakes and misfortunes. We also talk about how to shift out of one of the primary causes of the midlife malaise, the sense that your life is merely about putting out fires and checking off boxes. After the show’s over, check out our shownotes at aom.is/midlife.
Alright. Kieran Setiya, welcome to the show.
Kieran Setiya: Thanks for having me.
Brett McKay: So you are a Professor of Philosophy at MIT. You got a book out called Midlife: A Philosophy. And you take a look at the problems that a lot of people face when they hit those middle years of their life. And you explore whether philosophy has any guidance for that time period in their life. And you start off the book doing like a cultural history of this idea of the midlife crisis. Looking at the historical record, what’s the earliest reference we have to the midlife crisis?
Kieran Setiya: Well, the midlife crisis is really unusual among, sort of, cultural tropes in that there is a kind of definite history. Like you can actually date the origin of the phrase to this 1965 essay by a Canadian psychoanalyst called Elliot Jacques, called Death and the midlife crisis. And the idea of the midlife crisis, sort of discussion of midlife malaise under that heading, sort of really picks up in the 1970s. So in terms of the actual… The phrase itself, yeah, 1965 was sort of the birth.
Brett McKay: But even before that, was there sort of like a proto-concept of a midlife crisis in philosophy or cultural history?
Kieran Setiya: So it’s very hard to say exactly when the, sort of, phenomenon originates. So there’s these two ways to approach it. One is you can look at points in earlier history where people experienced midlife difficulties, and then there’s all kinds of examples. So people sometimes point to Dante feeling lost in middle age in this sort of dark world, and trying to find himself, and say, “Wow, maybe that’s a midlife crisis.” People have even talked about Odysseus in the Odyssey, traveling and then eventually finding his way home, is a midlife crisis. So the idea that people have to sometimes find themselves again in midlife has a very long history. As a kind of cultural phenomenon, most likely the plausible history has to do with the way in which work comes to be associated with efficiencies, sort of new efficiency focus of the early 20th century. And the idea that in order to be a valuable member of the workforce, you have to be more productive, and you have to compete with the young people entering the workforce. And as that gets more intense, the anxiety that by midlife you’re somehow past it, becomes more culturally pervasive. So those are two different ways to look at the kind of pre-history of the midlife crisis.
Brett McKay: And you point out in the book, in 1965, we see the phrase midlife crisis in the literature. And after that, it seemed like a lot of psychologists started studying this phenomenon. They’re like, “Well, what’s going on here? I’m seeing patients or clients that, talking about malaise when they’re… Hit 40.” Were there any actual concrete studies done in the 20th century about, “Yeah, midlife crisis is a thing.”
Kieran Setiya: So the two big studies, sort of academic studies, were by this guy Daniel Levinson at Yale called… He published a book called, Seasons of a Man’s Life. And Roger Gould at UCLA published a book called Transformations. And they were sort of social scientists studying the midlife crisis. Well, the history is sort of complicated because while they were studying it, this journalist, Gail Sheehy got very interested in the idea of midlife as a time of transition, partly because of essays that they had published about it before their books came out. And so really the first sort of big publication, the book that sold millions of copies, was Gail Sheehy’s book, Passages, which came out in 1976. And that book is in many ways, sort of cements some of the stereotypes of the midlife crisis. Sheehy has these archetypal descriptions of what your 20s are like, and what your 30s are like, and what your 40s a like, for men and for women. And Sheehy sort of characterizes middle age as a time of particular crisis and reinvention, or the need to re-invent oneself, for men and for women. And I think that was the sort of origin in terms of pop culture of the idea of the midlife crisis, but then sort of spread over the last decades of the 20th century.
Brett McKay: Okay. So from the ’70s on, the idea of midlife crisis took hold of the popular imagination. You see it pop up in TV shows, movies, etcetera. But then in like the late ’90s, early 2000s, you started seeing these studies in the popular press saying, “Well, actually the midlife crisis, that’s actually not a thing.” Can you tell us about those studies?
Kieran Setiya: Yeah. So around, I think it was 1989, the MacArthur Foundation sponsored this vast interdisciplinary research network of medical sociologists, and psychologists, and social scientists, directed by Orville Gilbert Brim, and the idea was that they were gonna do a very large scale empirical study, much bigger than the kind of studies that had been done by Levinson and Gould, of what was happening to people through the aging process. I think there were 7000 people that they surveyed in the studies that were conducted in 1995, mid-90s. And the results of those studies presented a picture that really didn’t fit the crisis model. So the general trend in terms of people’s sense of happiness, and self-mastery, and control, according to those studies was upward. So it got better and more stable in middle age. And then in many cases, even better and more stable as we went from middle age into older age. And when they tried to figure out whether there was really… There were really clear signs of a crisis, the data was very, very mixed. So you would find… If you look at over 40s in those studies, maybe a quarter of them will say, “Well, yeah, I had some kind of crisis.” But then you look at the more fine-grained qualitative data, and what happened was, they got divorced, or they switched jobs, or a parent died, so, sort of…
But shit happens at that point, and if you’re gonna call things that are going on in your life a crisis, you’ll be able to point to something and you might call it a midlife crisis. But there didn’t seem to be anything corresponding to the stereotype of sort of internal malaise and systemic reflection on the mistaken choices of one’s life and regret and missed opportunities. It just seemed like, yeah, life can be hard, and some of the difficult things we face really hit us hard around midlife. And so, yeah, by around 2000, a lot of psychologists would talk about the midlife crisis as something that had been debunked, it’s like the myth of the midlife crisis, it was a kind of popular idea that had been fostered and made prevalent in popular conversation by journalists and by cultural representations, but it didn’t… According to the studies around the ’90s and 2000, it didn’t really have a lot of empirical support.
Brett McKay: So what’s the state of the midlife crisis today? Is it just been debunked or they’re saying, “Well, maybe it could be a thing?”
Kieran Setiya: So, there’s a kind of a big transition that happens that I think is very interesting in which… Around early 2000s, economists, sort of quite generally got interested in welfare economics and systemic, often statistically based studies of people’s well-being and life satisfaction. And so, what happened was the two economists in particular, David Blanchflower and Andrew Oswald, did this gigantic study of data from 70 plus countries of men and women, in which they tracked basically people’s answers to the question, how satisfied are you with your life overall over the life cycle across age, and they did various kinds of regression studies to sort of factor out whether this was just a cohort effect, like, it just was like the ’60s was a tough time, or whether parenthood was responsible? And what they found was that even if you abstract from those kinds of factors, you find that around the world for men and for women, life satisfaction seemed to take the form of a gently curving U-shape.
And the nadir, the sort of rock bottom is on average mid-40s and it’s sort of a gentle curve, so it’s sort of high in your 20s, bottoms out in your 40s, and then it rises again later. And although it’s gentle, the gap is significant, so that the gap between sort of youth and middle age in life satisfaction is roughly the gap that you would associate with someone who’s already in middle age, getting a divorce or losing their job. So, it is as if sort of everyone experiences the equivalent of divorce or losing their job regard… Just because of aging, regardless of what else is going on in their life, by the time they reach middle age, but then they sort of come out of that. And so, what happened was that, well, it doesn’t look like a story of pervasive crisis, it’s not like inevitably everyone goes through a tremendous crisis in midlife and has to reinvent themselves, but there is a kind of general phenomenon of midlife malaise of a special difficulty with life and dissatisfaction with life around middle age.
And so I think nowadays, when people talk about the midlife crisis, even the meaning of the phrase, I think has shifted a bit. So when people talk about the reality of the midlife crisis often they… What they’re talking about is, not the idea that everyone has a kind of quit my job, leave my partner, spend everything on a fast car. It’s the phenomenon of midlife being just an especially challenging time for people to find satisfaction in their lives.
Brett McKay: So you are in midlife. Did you feel anything as you approached midlife? You’re like, “Something’s going on here,” like, “I’m not… Something’s off?”
Kieran Setiya: Absolutely. I mean, that was how I got interested in the topic. I was an early adopter in that. It was around 35 or so, I really started to feel like I wasn’t sure what I was doing with my life. And I think as an academic, that career structure is especially well set up to generate a midlife crisis. So you basically have your head down working incredibly hard to get a PhD, get a job, get tenure, you don’t have time to think, what am I doing? What do I care about in life? You don’t have time for much else. And then if you get tenure, you suddenly have this moment in which you can breathe and reflect, having not really had the opportunity to do that for 15 years, and at that point the questions suddenly rush in and you realize, “Yeah, what am I doing?” And so for me, part of what was puzzling about it was that it wasn’t that I thought, “I wanna quit academia. What’s the point of this?” I thought, “Yeah, teaching is a really important thing to do, and I still love philosophy and I still wanna keep working on philosophy.”
But even so, this sort of picture of my future was, “Well, I guess I’ll finish an article. I might get it published then I’ll write another article. I’ll teach these students, they’ll graduate, I’ll teach some more students.” And there’s a sense that, “Well, that’s all worth doing, but what does it all add up to?” There was a feeling of hollowness and that really hit me hard, yeah, sort of mid-30s and I… Yeah, I was an early adopter of the phrase and that I was very happy to describe myself as having a midlife crisis, in part because there’s a certain… It’s kind of jokey phrase, and that was a way to add a little bit of irony to my crisis and to talk about it with friends in a way that was sort of un-threatening and didn’t make it seem like a kind of deep, dark, difficult thing and… Yeah, it was out of that experience that I really got interested in the topic.
Brett McKay: So Levinson in his book, he kinda described midlife as sort of a second adolescence, where you kind of… You once again feel like you’re trying to… You’re evaluating yourself, you’re trying to figure out your place in the world. And it sounds like that’s kind of what you were going through, like you had an idea of your place, but you were trying to figure out what it meant.
Kieran Setiya: No, that’s exactly right, yeah. I mean, people do now talk about the quarter life crisis, and in a way, the kind of crisis of this limiting of options and the ways in which decisions constrain your life and that you’re gonna inevitably miss out on things and face regret and sort of drive to get things done in the sense of that something is missing. Those are experiences that I think people can have. They come from, sort of, the structure of human life and the irreversibility of time that you could at any point, so I think people sometimes do have that kind of angsty crisis when they’re graduating. And then if they’re like me, they figure out a plan and the plan lasts about 15 to 20 years, and then they come out of that and suddenly those questions… There’s room to ask those questions again, and so there is a way in which it has a kind of open-ended existential dimension, that sort of adolescent reflection on what… Who am I and what am I gonna do can have… That’s one way in which I think the sort of funny trope of the midlife crisis. While fair, you wouldn’t want it to distract us from the fact that the kinds of questions people are asking in this moment of midlife malaise uncertainty, are really deep, important, serious questions.
Like, “What really matters in my life? How should I spend the limited amount of time that I have? How should I deal with the fact that there are mistakes in my past and there are things I haven’t done, or that I have done that I cannot change now, and I have to live with that,” and those are serious hard questions about how to live. That come out of this midlife experience.
Brett McKay: Those are philosophical questions.
Kieran Setiya: No, exactly, exactly. And so part of what was puzzling to me was the sense that here I was… I was a philosopher, I work in ethics, moral philosophy, what I teach is the history and current reflection on questions about how to live, some of that is about moral obligation, some of it is about what makes your own life good, how to think about making the best of your life. And then here I was, having… Doing something that seemed worthwhile, things that I still thought were valuable, and yet feeling like there was something deeply wrong and empty and hollow in what I was doing, and it took a while for me to put the two together oddly to say, “Hold on.” The question, how is it possible around midlife to be doing things that seem worthwhile and yet to think, “Yeah my life’s kind of empty. I’m not sure I’m getting anything out of this.”
How is it possible to do that, is a philosophical question, and it was the point at which I thought, “Yeah, this is philosophically puzzling. Maybe what I should do is try and approach it as a philosopher.” That sort of gave me something to do, but it also gave me a kind of traction on the problem that was really helpful.
Brett McKay: So in your book, Midlife, you take a look at different ways people can experience sort of that malaise of midlife, sort of the different problems or philosophical problems, and the first one you explore is the person who they achieve all the big goals and milestones they set out as a young person, go to college, get the degree, get a job, for you maybe get tenure, start a family, get a house, you do all that stuff by the time you’re 35, 40, but you still feel letdown. It’s a big letdown. You’re like, “Is that all there is? Is that it?” And so to help you figure out what to do with this problem, sounds like this is the problem you were having…
Kieran Setiya: Yeah, absolutely.
Brett McKay: You turn to philosopher, John Stuart Mill. So let’s start off really briefly, what’s his background? What sort of philosophy did he do? And then let’s talk about what he can teach us about overcoming that problem.
Kieran Setiya: Sure, yeah. One thing you’re picking up on is that I think there are many midlife crisis. I don’t think there’s just one thing. There’s a kind of whole array of problems that people face, and one of them is the one that I think Mill had at an alarmingly early age. He’s a very interesting guy. He was the son of another philosopher. He was born at the start of the 19th Century, and his father was an accolade of Jeremy Bentham, who was a utilitarian, so the idea was the utilitarians thought, “Forget tradition. What we should do is change society now to make people happy.” And John Stuart Mill’s father thought, “Okay, that seems like a great plan. I will bring my son up from birth to be an instrument of that goal, so I’ll bring my son up to be someone who makes the world a better place and changes the world so that there’s less suffering and people can be happy,” and so he put John Stuart Mill though this insane hothouse education. So when he was three, he was taught Greek, he was reading Plato in the original Greek by the time he was seven.
He learned Latin at eight. He was reading Newton’s Principia Mathematica by the time he was 11. In his teenage years he was doing logic, Political Economy, psychology, law, then he did philosophy. And then at around the age of 20, John Stuart Mill had a nervous breakdown. And the nervous breakdown came from him thinking, “Okay, look, I’ve got this project in life. It’s my one project in life. It’s to reduce human suffering. That’s what I’ve got to do. That’s what I’ve been brought up to do.” And he thought… Well, he hadn’t yet been successful, but he sort of looked ahead and thought, “Suppose I’m successful. Suppose that happens. What then? What am I gonna do? What would make life meaningful?” And I think that crisis is, yeah philosophically interesting, and it’s analogous to a kind of crisis people can go through in midlife.
Brett McKay: No he… Yeah, you quote him, he says, “Suppose that all your objects in life were realized, that all the changes and institutions and opinions which you’re looking forward to could be completely affected at this very instant. Would this be a great joy and happiness to you and an irreplaceable self-conscious distinctly answered, “No.”
Kieran Setiya: Yeah, right.
Brett McKay: It is, really. Even if I got everything, I’d still be miserable.
Kieran Setiya: Yeah. So the thing that I think is going on, the kind of diagnosis of this that I think makes sense of Mill and also connects with the mid-life crisis is, what was distinctive about what Mill was doing was it was worthwhile, reduce human suffering, that matters and it’s not just a means to another end, it matters in itself. If you reduce someone’s suffering and nothing else happens because of that, at least you reduced someone’s suffering, so that’s a good thing to do. But it is, as I put it in the book, ameliorative. So it’s a kind of activity that’s valuable because it solves a problem or answers a need that really we’d rather not have to face. And if all you can think of in life that’s worth doing, or if most of what matters in your life, most of what you’re doing that’s worthwhile is ameliorative, all you’re really doing is taking away bad things, you’re not making life positively good. And if the best we could do, was sort of take away all the bad things in life, it will be sort of zero, like why would life be worth living at all?
And while I think few of us go through something quite as radical and extreme as Mill, I do think there’s this wide spread phenomenon of people in mid-life, sort of the Sandwich Generation phenomenon where the pressure of things you do in life that really matter involves a kind of preponderance, sort of overwhelming array of things that need to be done. So there’s work, stuff that has to get done for work, there’s parenting stuff you need to do because your kids are placing demands on you and you need to take care of them, and then you’ve got often aging parents and the kind of need to take care of them. And most of what you’re doing in life is ameliorative. Most of it is just, Well, let’s prevent bad things from happening, let’s stop things from falling apart.
And there isn’t enough room in your life, there isn’t enough space in your life, or you haven’t found enough in your life that is, as I call it in the book, again, existentially valuable. And existentially valuable things are things that aren’t just amelioratively valuable, they’re things that are good, but don’t solve a problem, they’re the kind of things that make life positively good and make life worth living at all. And those are the things that often it’s very hard to find space and time for in mid-life. So even if your situation is not as radical as Mill’s, you can experience a version of the, “Is that all there is?” Experience that he had.
Brett McKay: No, I think it’s a great thought experiment, ’cause I think everyone listening to this has experienced that if they’re a parent and they’re middle aged. It just seems like the only thing you’re doing is putting out fires, and then you always tell yourself, Man, if I can just get ahead, life will be awesome. And Mill made me think, Maybe not. Maybe I’d just be just as miserable right now ’cause I don’t have anything positive to turn to.
Kieran Setiya: Right. What would I do? Is the question, and often, understandably, there’s not much point thinking, What would I do if I had a whole lot more time than I have when you don’t have that time, and it would just frustrate you to think about it. But if you don’t have a vision for that, you’re setting yourself up for a kind of crisis and you’re also acquiescing, you’re allowing yourself to live a version of your life in which all you are is a kind of problem-solver. You’re like a double negative, you’re just, “Well, I’ll get rid of the bad stuff.” And that is not a way to live a life that’s truly meaningful or truly rewarding.
Brett McKay: We’re gonna take a quick break for a word with my sponsors. And now back to the show. So how did Mill get out of his funk? So he realized, “Okay, I’m doing all this stuff, it’s good, but it’s not gonna give me satisfaction if I achieve it,” so what did he do to get out of his funk?
Kieran Setiya: So the big thing for Mill was reading Wordsworth’s poetry, so he read romantic poetry, poetry about nature, and it gave him, he said this sort of kind of vision of things that were meaningful and valuable, that didn’t have anything to do with struggle or imperfection, that weren’t problems to be solved, there was just a contemplation of nature through art, and that for him gave a glimpse into things that are worth doing that are not ameliorative, that are not problem-solving. And so for him, that was the big innovation.
Brett McKay: How would that play out for someone living in the 21st century?
Kieran Setiya: Well, it’s a good question. You could read poetry too, it’s not like that… So that option remains. And you also have… Mill, I think he’s picking up on ideas from the ancient Greek philosopher, Aristotle, that’s a similar kind of worry that the life of practical virtue is just a lot of hard work, and what are you gonna relax and do? And he also talks about contemplation, although for Aristotle, it’s contemplating God, it’s sort of intellectual reflection on God. So there were kind of highfalutin things, it could be. It could be that you read poetry, experience, create or consume art, or you contemplate God. But there’s also more mundane things. So there’s friendship, telling jokes, loving relationships, knowledge and learning for its own sake, even forms of productive activity where you make things like… You could take up wood working. And part of the thing that’s interesting about productive activity for us is that it brings out something that Aristotle, I think missed and that Mill isn’t always clear about, which is, there’s this idea that if you’re producing things or making things, well, maybe you’re answering a need.
Sure, but not all needs are ones we would be better off without. Sometimes you’re answering a need, but actually you’re grateful that you need that thing. So people who need people, there’s a sense that in spending time with others, you’re answering a need, you’re reducing their loneliness, but it’s not like ideally we’d have no need for each other. There are needs like that that are positively valuable. And so when you’re engaging in activity that answers needs like that, you’re actually doing something that isn’t just ameliorative, it really does have this sort of existential meaning, giving value, so I think there’s a whole range of things that can fit into that category.
Brett McKay: As a philosopher, would you get… Even as an ethicist, would you sort of grade those things? You’re saying mundane things are fine, but what if someone’s thing is like, “All I’m gonna do is play golf and build model trains for the rest of my life.” What would Aristotle say about that?
Kieran Setiya: So that’s a very good question. So part of what I’m interested in, and philosophically, I think is interesting about the mid-life crisis, is that it reveals that there are many more different dimensions of value than we normally pay attention to. So people often will distinguish between stuff that’s instrumentally valuable or a means to an end and stuff that matters in itself. But even among the things that matter in themselves, we have to make further distinctions, like, does it matter in itself because it’s ameliorative and problem-solving, or because it is existentially valuable and makes life positively good? And what you’re pointing to is the idea that, well there’s a further distinction. Among the things that have existential value, they’re not just problem-solving and they’re really good, some seem more trivial than others, and some seem like they couldn’t give meaning to a whole life. Like, doing golf just as a hobby, could that give meaning to your whole life? Whereas maybe poetry could, maybe contemplating God could, maybe philosophy could, maybe friendship and love can.
So I do think, although I think it’s hard to theorize about, and there are a lot of risks in setting up that kind of hierarchy, I do think we need to be able to ask and answer questions about, of the various activities that really could make life meaningful, which are the ones that are more meaningful and which ones should we devote more time to? So the short answer is, yeah, I think there is a hierarchy. I think it’s very hard to talk about it in ways that don’t risk being prejudicial or excessively opinionated, but I think we kinda need to have those conversations.
Brett McKay: What did you find? What was your existential thing that you found?
Kieran Setiya: Well, I… That is a good question. For me, in some ways, what happened was that my relationship to philosophy was screwed up. And so philosophy was still something that really mattered, but the way I was doing it was wrong, I think. That I had come to sort of shift from caring about these deep questions and just thinking, I wanna ask these questions, this really matters, to translating that into the professional context of academia, which has its role and has its value, but you don’t want your whole relationship to these deep questions to be, Well can I get another article out of this? And can I get tenure? Which is sort of ameliorative. Can I avoid getting… Can I get tenure is, can I avoid getting fired in the next five years? So I think for me, a big part of it was extracting my love of philosophy from the professional structure that had distorted it. But that’s not to say that there are also things like, I have a wife I love, I have a kid I love, and I have hobbies, like I do fantasy baseball and things like that. So there are other smaller things in my life, but if you’re looking for the one that… If on this hierarchy, I was gonna say, Which are the big ones? It would be my relationships with family and friends, and then it would be philosophy.
Brett McKay: Okay, so if you reach midlife and you’re having this problem of, You set out and you achieved all the goals you wanted to achieve as a young person. And you’re thinking, What else? What else is there now? The answer is, find something existential, find something you just do that you enjoy for the love of it. It’s not about problem-solving or advancing your career, it’s just you do it ’cause you love it.
Kieran Setiya: Exactly, in fact, make room in your life for that, if you can. So, try to at least have some part of your life set aside for that. And it could even be… It could be a hobby, but it could be a changing what you do at work and thinking, “At this point, everything I do at work is putting out fires, but why did I start this business to begin with?” It was ’cause I had visions that I wanted to achieve that made it positively worthwhile. Have I lost sight of them and can I find room for them in my life? So I think there are kind of practical things like that you can do to rediscover. Usually, what’s happened is that there have been these sort of roots of existential value in your life, and then they just get sidelined, sidelined and sidelined. And so, sometimes it’s something totally new, and sometimes what’s involved is figuring out what got sidelined in your life that you can now re-discover and bring back into focus.
Brett McKay: Okay, so another problem of midlife that you tackle is, Feeling regret over decisions you didn’t make. So it’s like the feeling of missing out, like you missed out. So someone, they became an accountant instead of pursuing their music career dreams, or they’re still living in their hometown instead of moving to some exotic locale. Any insights from philosophy on how to handle the worry that you’ve missed out in life?
Kieran Setiya: Yeah, so this was definitely part of it for me, and I do think it’s something that there’s a kind of philosophical… A useful philosophical lens on. And I think it involves asking where this is coming from? What explains this phenomenon? And what it’s explained by is, at root, something philosophers call value pluralism. What’s going on is there’s many different kinds of valuable things, there’s… You could love music, and then you could love your hometown, and you could love exotic locations and travel. And in a way, it’s sort of guaranteed that wherever you end up, you’re gonna miss out on one of them. And so, part of what I think can help to reconcile people to this phenomenon of missing out is realizing two things, I suppose. One is, given this array of values, all the different things you love, it’s inevitable that you’re gonna miss out. You’re gonna miss out on something. Even if you live forever, there’s still a shape your life has to have, and it could have… You could have done different things on different days, and you’ll never be able to go back and change that.
And the second thing that I think is helpful is to ask, “Well, okay, this seems inevitable. Why is it inevitable? And what would it take to avoid it?” Well, the only way you can sort of live a life that wasn’t subject to this problem of missing out, this inevitability of missing out, would be if either there really wasn’t very much in the world worth doing. Like, the world was sort of this stark place, where there was one thing that matters and everything else is gray, or the world has this variety of things, but you are sort of completely indifferent to or unresponsive to most of them. So what it would take not to live a life that involves this kind of missing out, would be to impoverish the world or impoverish yourself. And no one really wants that. That’s not what you want. So the truth is, we sort of want, if we’re thinking clearly, to lean into the inevitability of missing out, because it’s a way of acknowledging, and rightly acknowledging the richness of the world, and how much there is out there to appreciate and value. And so, I think that that way of reframing things is, I think, very helpful. It’s not…
It’s kinda… It’s not a way of solving the problem that says, “Hey, here’s a trick. Do these three things and you’ll never miss out on anything in your life.” It’s like a kind of philosophical form of cognitive therapy, where say, “What’s happening when you feel frustrated about missing out?” is that you’re reaching for something that seems possible, you really wish you could have it. But the more you reflect on it, you’ll realize it’s impossible, and it’s sort of a good thing that you’re forced to miss out in that way. It’s a feature of the richness of life and the richness of your response to it. So yeah, it doesn’t solve the problem in the sense of taking it away, but it reframes it, so that it becomes more acceptable and more livable, I think.
Brett McKay: And another point you make as well that can help is, I think a lot of times people feel bad about missing out, ’cause they’re like, “Well, I’m missing out on options, I wish I had all the options I had when I was a kid or a younger person.” But having a lot of options, if you really remember what it was like, it was actually kind of stressful to think about… There’s all these things I could do, and it’s kind of nice to know, well, I don’t have to worry about it anymore. I have an identity, I have a self that I can navigate the world with, and I’m not caught up in all these options. So I think one thing that is useful is to think about, Okay, options are good, but sometimes not having the options is nice as well.
Kieran Setiya: Yeah, I… Yeah, exactly. There’s this sort of fantasy we can go in for that is sort of impossible, where we think… I do this sometimes, I look back and think, “I wish I was just back in grad school or in college. I could make so much more of it now. I could get so much more out of it. I’d make different decisions. I could try so many different things,” and it’s an illusion. What’s happening is, I’m imagining me now with the benefit of all the experiences between college and middle age, being back then. But of course, the whole point about being back then is you don’t have any of the security and self-knowledge that you slowly and painstakingly acquire over 20 or 30 years, so being back then, your situation then was not this sort of fantasy situation in which you know exactly who you are and yet you also have all the options, that’s just not a possibility. And so that… Kind of ridding yourself of that illusion, that kind of fantasy is, I think, it goes along with the point you’re making that you have to remember the ways in which the array of options is the correlative of not knowing who you are, not knowing what you’re gonna do, and the instability and uncertainty that goes along with that.
Brett McKay: So another feeling of regret that people can experience in mid-life is regret for… It’s not for the things they missed out on, but it was regret for the decisions they made, or the plans they made, and it didn’t go well, like it was a bad decision looking back on it. What’s the source of that regret, and then what can we do to ameliorate that?
Kieran Setiya: Yeah. So this is sort of in many ways a harder problem, and the missing out thing, it seems like, well, even if things go well, you’re gonna miss out. So one thing to say is, this is not a sign that something went wrong with your life, this is just how it goes, you can’t do everything. Whereas when you look back and think, I made a terrible mistake, I betrayed someone and I just regret it forever, or something terrible happened to me and I just wish it hadn’t, those things are not inevitable, you might not have made that mistake, and it could have been that you didn’t go through whatever suffering or injustice you experienced earlier in life. And so, I think it’s just… It’s not, in principle, inevitable that you’ll have those kinds of aspects of your life. In practice though, everyone does have mistakes, misfortunes, there’s failures, there’s things that have gone wrong that they have to live with. And there, I think sort of part of what we can do to reframe it, is again, there’s a kind of incomplete thinking through of what it would mean not to have made those mistakes or not to have experienced those misfortunes. And when we really think through fully, the desire for the past to have gone differently, we realize, actually, it’s more complicated than I thought.
So the clearest example of this is, if you’re a parent, you can do this. You can think, okay, I look back at mistakes and misfortunes in my life that happened before my child was born, maybe I wish I hadn’t gone to that college where I happened to meet my wife, or I wish I hadn’t left that person for my future husband. So there’s some kind of mistake, you’re gonna think, I regret this, and you look back, but you think, okay, there’s a sense in which I wish that hadn’t happened, there’s a sense in which there was something bad about that. But now, from the perspective of seeing what happened afterwards, the whole unfolding of history in which one crucial thing that happened was that your child was born, and they wouldn’t have existed at all if it hadn’t been for the history of how you ended up in this particular relationship, and even having a child, it’s so sensitive to the genetics and which sperm, and which egg, like slight decisions in your past life would affect whether your child even exists.
So, wishing that the past had not gone the way it had, wishing you could rewind it and do it over again, when you really think through the implications of that, at least in this case, where the existence of your child depends on your having experienced that misfortune or making that mistake, actually, when you fully think it through, you’re likely to be at best ambivalent. The thought is, well, I kinda wish I had ended that relationship, or I wish I hadn’t gone to that college, but if I hadn’t, my kid wouldn’t exist, and I love my kid and I affirm their existence and I’m attached to them, and so there’s this great counter-weight to regret about the past that comes from attachment to the individuals in your life, whose existence depends on it. And what I think, actually, is that it’s not just specific to the special case where the existence of someone in your life that you love depends on the mistakes and misfortunes in the past. Even if you sort of expand to think about not just the existence of people, but your knowing certain people, your having relationships with them, I think what we find is that we have a kind of reasonable, rational, sensible, appropriate attachment, not just to our life going well, but to the particular ways in which it goes well and the particular people who are part of that. So you can just ask yourself, what if I hadn’t made that mistake, if I hadn’t been… I don’t know, what was your example? If I hadn’t…
If I kept with my music career and not been an accountant, would I have met my friend Jamie? No, I wouldn’t. And if I hadn’t met my friend Jamie, I wouldn’t know Jamie, and I love Jamie, and I… There’s at least a kind of counter-weight to the abstract wishing that things had gone better, which is all the specific things in your life you’re attached to. And so there’s a kind of risk here, akin to some of the risks we talked about before, of abstracting too much, sort of asking these grand cartoony questions about, “How do I wish my life had gone,” without properly appreciating the particular aspects of your life that are actually good. And again, that’s not gonna mean that this wasn’t a mistake, and it wasn’t a misfortune, but it’s a way to change how you feel about it, or prevent yourself from thinking about it in a way that’s unduly abstract and therefore sort of misleading.
Brett McKay: That’s “It’s a Wonderful Life,” that’s what happens to George Bailey. He gets to see what life is like if he was never born.
Kieran Setiya: Exactly. Yeah, yeah. So, these are all versions of the same thought, which is, you wish something hadn’t happened, but you’re not really thinking through fully all the consequences of that, and when you fully think it through, ambivalence is the almost pervasive relationship we have, and ought to have, to most of the things in our lives. Which is, again, it’s not to say that they weren’t mistakes or they weren’t misfortunes. It’s just to say that so much in our lives depends in all of its details on what exactly happened, and it’s a rare case where there’s nothing that came out of a misfortune that involves an attachment that you wouldn’t have been able to make otherwise.
Brett McKay: So, yeah. This is about… So there’s nothing really… You can’t do anything about it, you can’t go back in time and change things, so this approach, it’s just trying to, I guess, kinda putting balm on the pain, is that?
Kieran Setiya: Yeah. It doesn’t sort of solve the problem by making it go away. One thing to say about this is, a lot of what I was thinking about in my mid-life was devoted to the question… I knew I wasn’t gonna change my life in a radical way, and I felt like I was being ungrateful. I was making some kind of mistake. And so for me, the goal was very much about thinking, “Why am I not appreciating my life? What mistakes am I making?” And trying to uproot them. Sometimes what happens when you go through that process of trying to diagnose the mistakes is you realize, “No, I really should quit this job.” Or, “No, this relationship is not working. I need to leave.” So sometimes radical change is what’s required. Not just changing how you think. But even then, I think, going through the process of trying to figure out, “Am I just making a mistake about how I think about my life so that I’m not appreciating it?” is a step towards realizing either, “Yeah, I’m just not thinking about this right.” Or, “No, even when I think about it right, the problem doesn’t go away.” And then you’ll have learned something about what kind of change you need to make.
Brett McKay: So a final problem that you address in the book is the feeling that many people have that they… When they reach middle age, they have nothing else to look for in life, nothing to strive for. So when you’re a young adult, you’ve got all these big life goals that direct all of your actions. And then you hit middle age, like you, you’re like, “Oh, I’ve got tenure, I’ve published, I’m doing all this… I’ve done everything.” So how do you deal with that? You feel… You probably feel kind of aimless, so how do you overcome that? What can philosophy tell us about that problem, of feeling aimless after achieving all that you’ve done?
Kieran Setiya: Yeah, and I think this is the sort of the other side of the John Stuart Mill problem. And it applies even if you think, “I haven’t done everything, you’ve still got things to do.” There’s this way you can feel about them, that it’s just one more check box after another, and that was certainly how I was feeling was, “I’ve gotta write this paper, then what? I guess I’ll write another paper. I gotta teach this class. Great, I care about the students, so that’s important. Check box, now I’ll teach another class.” So even the things I did have to do felt like I was just checking them off. I think what’s going on there can be illuminated by this distinction I make between what I call telic and atelic activities. So telic activities comes from the Greek word “telos,” or goal. Telic activities are ones that aim at an end state, so it might be teaching this class or getting a promotion or getting married or having a kid, where there’s a final point at which you’re done. And the thing about telic activities is that while you’re engaged with them, you’re not there yet, and as soon as you’re there, you’re done. It’s in the past.
Worse than that, what you’re doing when you engage with them is taking this thing that is giving meaning to your life and you’re trying to finish it, so you’re taking something that matters and you’re trying to extinguish it. It’s like you’re saying, “This really is important. I’ll try and kill it. I’ll try and get it out of my life.” And so I think often what’s going on with this feeling of emptiness in the present is a type A project-driven personality, in which everything has been organized around telic activities or projects, and even if they matter, there’s a way in which satisfaction is always in the future, or in the past. The present is sort of empty, and the present is just trying to get it done, trying to get rid of it. And that kind of emptiness, I think, was the thing that was really troubling me… Part of what was really troubling me. But I think there is good news there, and this comes from the other side of the philosophical distinction, so not all activities are like that.
So there are telic activities that aim at these finite goals. There are also what I call atelic activities. So atelic activities are the ones that don’t have a final end point, so as well as making your kids dinner, there’s parenting. And parenting, eventually you’ll stop. Eventually you’ll die. Eventually your kids leave home or whatever, but there is no final point to which you’re like, “I parented. That’s done.” And the same is true of thinking about philosophy. The same is true of most of the activities that make up meaningful relationships, and the same is true of… But most of the time, whatever we’re doing, even when it’s a telic activity, there’s a atelic activity we’re engaging in at the same time.
And so the thing about atelic activities is they don’t exhaust themselves. You’re not trying to… By engaging in them, you’re not sort of extinguishing them, and they don’t have this problem, that satisfaction is always sort of mortgaged to the future or consigned to the past. If what you want to be doing is spending time with your friends or listening to music, and that’s what you’re doing, well, it’s happening right now. There’s no sort of looking forward to the future, or it’s already over, to worry about. And so I think one problem is being so type A project-oriented that the present feels empty, and one solution is to reorient yourself so that you find atelic activities that you can attach value to and find value in and really invest in. And they will be the kinds of activities that will give meaning to the present in a way that we often lose sight of as we become sort of endlessly striving by the time we’re 35, 40.
And I think part of what happened to me was that I’d been striving and had no time to think about that. And the moment I stepped back and thought, “What am I doing with my life? It’s just one project after another.” That was when the crisis hit and the shift towards atelic activities was really necessary.
Brett McKay: This reminds me of… Jung picked up on this. He said there was two halves of a person’s life. There’s the first half of life where it’s very telic, you’re doing… Checking off the boxes. The second half of life is atelic. You’re trying to figure out what this all means. And we’ve had Father Richard Rohr on the podcast, who picked up this Jungian idea, and he talks about this. There’s first half of life mode, where the whole point of that is to build the box of your life, so you’re checking off the things, building a family, getting your career going. And then he says, “Usually there’s something that knocks you off into the second half of life. And then that’s when you start filling that box that you’ve made in that first half of life.” And he makes that point about trying to find the atelic activity in the telic activities. He’s got this great phrase. He says, “You need to start thinking about what we’re really doing when we’re doing the things that we’re doing.”
And an example I can think of is if you mentor… You’re some sort of a youth leader or something I don’t know, coach. When you’re in that first half of life mode, when you’re very telic, you’re just probably just concerned, like, “What are the outcomes? Are these kids making progress? Are we winning football games? Are we blah, blah, blah, blah.” The second half would be, like, “Well, what am I really doing here? What is the big thing I’m trying… Well, I’m trying to develop people into functioning moral adults. So I’m gonna focus on that.” So you’re looking for the atelic in this telic activity. Is that… Am I hitting that right?
Kieran Setiya: That’s exactly… No, that’s exactly right. I love that. Yeah, one speculative thought that goes back to your question earlier about sort of the social science of aging is, “Why does the U-curve go upwards in older age?” And one thought is the people who make it into older age have to adjust to this. They have to become more atelic, like that they’re on the other… They’re sort of coming through… Not all of them, and not all to the same degree. But they’re coming through the shift in which you think, “Yeah, it’s not gonna be about projects anymore. It’s about the process of what I’m doing and finding value in that.” And that’s how people sort of… Part of what’s going on when people get lifted out of the U-curve. They’re making the transition that you’re describing, and sort of coming out on the other side of it.
And I think that is a kind of deep truth about what it takes to adjust to time. I mean, to be honest, I think it’s not like you couldn’t do it earlier. It might be that if people thought about their lives differently from earlier on, they never became so project-oriented. Well, I don’t know, what would happen? Maybe they wouldn’t get so much done. I don’t know, maybe what would happen is that they would get things done but would never have to… They would sort of already be starting this process of shifting earlier in life. So it’s a real question, whether you need to delay this sort of shift in orientation, or whether there’s a way to integrate it throughout your life. Even into your youth. I think that’s a sort of open-ended question.
Brett McKay: So the argument you’re making here is as you get older, start shifting from those projects to just focusing on the process. But it sounds like you’re not saying completely eliminate all your striving in middle age. Are you… You’re writing books, you’re doing things that are telic.
Kieran Setiya: Yeah, yeah. One thing to say… There’s two things to say about that. I suppose one is, we’re always doing both. We’re always attempting to finish things, and the question is never whether we can get rid of projects from our lives. It’s sort of where our focus is. So someone’s writing a book. You could say, “What do you care about? Do you care about thinking about these questions? Do you care about getting the book published, or do you care about both?” And you could write a book and say, “That was just a side effect of what I wanted. I just wanted to think about these questions, and the best way to think about them was to put it in the form of a book. The finishing of the book? That was an afterthought.” So you could approach life like that. You wouldn’t get rid of the projects, they would just become secondary. I think realistically, most of us rightly care about the outcome. So we do care… If you’re a doctor, you care that your patient lives, but it also matters that you’re being a good doctor and taking care of them. And that will be valuable even if this patient didn’t make it. So usually I think the right attitude is both sides of this matter, the telic side and the atelic side. And it’s a matter of sort of balancing the focus between them.
Brett McKay: Yeah. It sounds like, “Be telic don’t be too graspy about it.”
Kieran Setiya: That is right, right. Don’t subordinate the value of what you’re doing to the product of what you’re doing.
Brett McKay: Right. Well, this has been a great conversation. Where do people go to learn more about your book?
Kieran Setiya: Well, so I have a website, if you Google Kieran Setiya, you can find me. I’m on Twitter as @kieransetiya. I also have a podcast where I interview philosophers a little bit about philosophy, but also about how their lives and philosophy are entangled with one another, which is something I’m really interested in. And as well as the mid-life book, I have a new book coming out 2022… Fall of 2022 called Life Is Hard, coming out from Riverhead Books. And so I’m finishing that and I’m excited about that, and hopefully they’ll be news about that soon.
Brett McKay: Got those projects. You still doing the projects.
Kieran Setiya: Exactly. Yes.
Brett McKay: Well, Kieran Setiya, thank you for your time. It’s been a pleasure.
Kieran Setiya: Thank you so much. It was great to talk to you.
Brett McKay: My guest today was Kieran Setiya. He’s the author of the book Mid-life: A Philosophical Guide. It’s available on Amazon.com and book stores everywhere. You can find more information about his work at his website, ksetiya.net. Also check out our show notes at aom.is/midlife. You can find links to resources, where we delve deeper into this topic.
Well, that wraps up another edition of The AOM Podcast. Make sure you check out our website at artofmanliness.com, where you can find our podcast archives, as well as thousands of articles written over the years about pretty much anything you think of. And if you like to enjoy ad free episodes of The AOM Podcast, you can do so on Stitcher Premium. Head over to stitcherpremium.com, sign up, use code Manliness at check out for a free month trial. Once you’re signed up, download the Stitcher app on Android or iOS, and you can start enjoying ad free episodes of The AOM Podcast. And if you haven’t done so already, I’d appreciate if you take one minute to give us a review on Apple Podcasts or Spotify. It helps that a lot. If you’ve done that already, thank you. Please consider sharing the show with a friend or family member who you think will get something out of it. As always, thank you for the continued support. Until next time, this is Brett McKay, reminding you to not only listen to AOM Podcast, but put what you’ve heard into action.