Julie Gould: 00:09
Hello, welcome back. I’m Julie Gould. And this is Working Scientist, a Nature Careers podcast. And we are smack bang in the middle of the Muddle of the Middle series.
In the previous episodes of this series we’ve heard from guests about how difficult and stressful the mid-career can be.
It’s a delicate balancing act of academic career, you know, the writing grant applications and papers, reviewing other people's grants and papers, supervising, mentoring, doing research, etc, etc.
And the other side of the coin, which is a family and personal life.
And it’s also not that everything is going wrong all in one go. Sometimes it’s much more subtle. You can actually have everything going really well for you at this point in your career. You’ve got the job, you’ve got the funding in, the research published, students are mentored, family and personal life is going well, too.
Kieran Setiya: 01:06
So how can it be that while you’re doing things that seem worthwhile, nevertheless, there’s this sense of emptiness, or hollowness, or frustration?
Julie Gould: 01:15
This is the philosophical puzzle that Kieran Setiya, a professor of philosophy at MIT, has been thinking about. This hollowness and frustration can lead to more serious issues.
It can get to people. It can become too much, lead to burnout and to breakdowns. Some call it the mid-career crisis, others the mid career malaise.
You know what, it made me really sad to think that this was happening to people who, at the heart of it all, actually love what they do.
Almost everyone who is a scientific researcher is one because they are curious people. They are passionate about their science, and they love their research. So I wanted to find a way to help those in the mid career stage who might be struggling with the stress of it all.
And I wanted to help them find a way to reconnect with their love for their work, to take a step back and to look at the bigger picture and remind themselves of why they wanted to be a scientist in the first place.
So before we go back to Kieran and his philosophical puzzle, I actually wanted to share some thoughts from an economist.
Hannes Schwandt: 02:17
My name is Hannes Schwandt. I'm an economist by training and I'm an associate professor of human development and social policy at Northwestern University.
Julie Gould: 02:26
Haness is interested in life satisfaction research, and he's trying to understand why there seems to be this period of malaise in the middle.
Hannes Schwandt: 02:33
And the pattern that appears over and over in the data is this kind of U shape and life satisfaction over the lifecycle, so that, you know, young people are quite happy. Then their happiness declines with age and you know, hits rock bottom, in midlife. So you know, between the mid 40s, mid 50s. And then increases again.
Julie Gould: 02:53
This life satisfaction curve is actually mimicked in surveys about career satisfaction. And in fact, that is how all this life satisfaction research started in the first place.
Andrew Oswald, who is a professor of economics and behavioural science at Warwick University, first witnessed this U-shaped satisfaction curve when surveying job satisfaction in the 1990s, when this field of research was relatively new.
Hannes Schwandt: 03:18
The point there is of course, that jobs, the work, are really important parts of people’s lives. Also of their identity, right? So if you just feel like generally, you’re dissatisfied about your life, it very easily can, you know, a very important part of that can be an association of, like, dissatisfaction with your job. And so I think, you know, mid career and midlife aspects, they’re very closely connected.
Julie Gould: 03:45
So if this U shape can be seen across both life and job satisfaction, why is there, and why do people expect life satisfaction to decrease in midlife?
Hannes used data from the German socioeconomic panel, a longitudinal study from 1991 to 2004, which looked at people’s expected life satisfaction and compared it to actual life satisfaction.
Hannes Schwandt: 04:10
And what you see very consistently, across, you know, across all periods in the dataset, across different subgroups, across different parts of the country, and so on, is that young people, you know, don’t anticipate the life satisfaction going down with age. They actually expect that things will even improve with age.
And, and then as you know, life satisfaction goes down with age, expectations also decline. They actually decline and faster. Then they meet in the midlife just at the bottom, when you know when when, when life satisfaction is lowest, and the expectations actually stay relatively low.
Julie Gould: 04:48
The data was so consistent that Hannes thought there must be a mistake. He cut the data every which way he could think of, compared it to other studies, and yet still the pattern persisted.
It must be those young folk, right? Those young folk with such a rosy view of the future. And to be honest, I don't think I want to change that. But why does it go away? Why in our middle age, do we get bitter? Well, you can kind of see how this might happen. Here’s a little example.
Imagine a young person, happy, free, few cares, life is going well, and they expect things to continue along that path. And, you know, why wouldn’t they? Why shouldn’t they?
But as the years go by, things start to go, well, not wrong per se, but not as expected and disappointments come along.
Life satisfaction starts going down at the same time. So this is misery. And at this point, they’re probably learning that their expectations were too high, too. So double misery.
Hannes Schwandt: 05:45
So midlife is suddenly the situation of this double misery where like, the past looks bad, and the future suddenly also looks bad, right?
And what then happens is this really important mechanism that the ageing brain understands to, to feel less regret about past missed chances.
Julie Gould: 06:04
Interestingly, you can actually see this in some neuroscience brain studies. So an example is in 2012, where Brassin and colleagues asked older people and younger people to play a game where they had to stop playing at some point.
And if they played too long, they started losing money. And if they stopped too early, they forewent additional gains.
So at some point, they would stop the people from playing the game, and then show them what they'd missed out on by not continuing to play.
Hannes Schwandt: 06:32
And the young people, they are really upset, you know, you see their, you know, their heart rate going up, you see the brains lightening up also you know, in the brain scanner.
You see, like, all those, like, physical reactions, the hands starting to sweat. The older subjects, there was no response at all.
Julie Gould: 06:50
All the older ones were like, “Meh, whatever, this doesn't matter in the grand scheme of things.”
Hannes Schwandt: 06:56
And that is a pattern that has to be like generally observed, that, you know, there's like a certain like, you know, ageing wisdom or something that people are just like coming to terms with their life, and dealing better with with past disappointment.
So, overall, you know, this, this, explanation, you know, that arises from the empirical data. And at the same time, from the research that brain scientists have done, is the idea that the U shape is driven by unmet aspirations that are painfully felt in midlife, but are then beneficially abandoned and felt with less regret as people become older,
Julie Gould: 07:35
The combination could indicate that there is some biological reason for the midlife malaise, thinks Hannes. And he has put together some mathematical models to describe the process.
Hannes Schwandt: 07:46
You make the current life satisfaction, the function of your disappointment about your life, at the same period, right, means, if you something you know, doesn't turn out as nicely as your thing, it can just be a small thing, right? That makes you disappointed.
Julie Gould: 08:01
And then you become less happy about your life, which makes you more disappointed, which makes you more unhappy, etc, etc.
Hannes Schwandt: 08:08
You dig yourself just dig deeper and deeper hole, where you suddenly, like, are super frustrated with your life. You don't know what's going on, even though nothing really has happened.
Julie Gould: 08:16
And this is what we touched on at the very beginning of this podcast, Kieran Setiya’s philosophical puzzle.
Kieran Setiya: 08:22
How can it be that while you’re doing things that seem worthwhile, nevertheless, there's this sense of emptiness, or hollowness or frustration?
Julie Gould: 08:32
There is an upside, I promise, there is a way to break the vicious circle. And it starts with by not calling this a crisis, and trying to get it out of your life.
Hannes Schwandt: 08:41
It's the opposite, just embracing and saying, like, “Hey, that’s something that's maybe normal, it’s maybe partly biological, right? And it's, as you said, We’re gonna you know, it’s not necessarily pleasant, right? And maybe that’s also not the point of it. But it is something that’s a normal developmental stage.
Julie Gould: 08:57
Oh, my goodness. It’s like puberty all over again.
If you’re a grown up, you think about children who are going through puberty and how confused they are.
They don’t really understand how the world works. And you try to guide them through the tough times, help them identify and manage their emotions.
But now, if you’re grown up, and all of a sudden you have these unexplained emotions, and you’re supposed to know how the world works.
But there’s no one to guide you through these unexplained emotions or how to manage them. Well, one thing to say is, we know it’s coming.
One way to help guide yourself through this period is by looking at it from a philosophical perspective, says Kieran Setiya from MIT.
It can help as a diagnostic tool to help analyze what you’re doing that may be contributing to this mid- career malaise.
So Kieran uses two different categories of describing people’s present activities to help them understand and diagnose the origin of their malaise. And the first one he calls ameliorative values.
Kieran Setiya: 10:00
So you think of ameliorative value as problem solving. So you’re confronted with a problem you would rather not have to deal with. But now that it's here, you need to address it. And it’s worth addressing. It still has value. There’s something, there’s something good about solving the problem.
But nevertheless, if everything you’re doing is devoted to solving problems that you’d rather not face, to just sort of answering needs, troubleshooting, putting out fires.
There’s a way in which, if that's all you can do, there's nothing positively good about your work, or your career, or this aspect of your life.
Julie Gould: 10:35
And these ameliorative values contrast with the other kind, he looks at, the existential values.
Kieran Setiya: 10:41
The kind of thing that isn’t just a double negative, like taking away something bad, but makes life or work positively good.
So one kind of crisis around mid career is I think that the crush of…. people sometimes talk about the urgent and the important, the crush of the things that are urgent and need doing, because otherwise things will fall apart, can expand to the point where the positive value of what you're doing is hard to make out. And that's one kind of crisis.
And then the other kind of distinction that I think is philosophically illuminating and helpful is this distinction between what I call telic and atelic activities.
Julie Gould: 11:18
Okay, time to put the entomology hats on here. So the word telic stems from the Greek word telos, which means end. So a telic activity is an activity with a definite end or goal. So turning in that grant application, applying for a job, running a series of experiments, or submitting that paper.
Kieran Setiya: 11:37
The problem with telic activities is you’re always looking to the future, you’re always trying to get something done.
And as soon as it’s done, that's over, and you move on to the next one. There’s a kind of hollowness in the present.
And worse, in a way, what you’re doing when you engage in telic activities or projects is you’re trying to complete them. So you’re trying to take something that’s meaningful, and sort of finish it, get it out of your life.
Julie Gould: 12:01
Not all activities are like this. And here come the atelic activities. And these, according to Kieran, are projects without a terminal endpoint. And a really good example of this is the act of learning.
Kieran Setiya: 12:12
There’s no particular point at which you're done learning. There's, it’s it’s an ongoing activity. For me, I think this was a very central part of what happened around mid career that was challenging was that I had gone from engaging in the atelic activity of philosophical reflection, reading and thinking about philosophy into a kind of mode where my engagement with philosophy, which I still loved, was structured by project after project after project.
Julie Gould: 12:39
This is starting to sound familiar, isn’t it? I think so. This is the kind of thing we’ve heard other guests on this podcast series talk about. So how can we do the diagnostics? What sort of questions can you ask yourself?
Kieran Setiya: 12:52
Okay, take a look at the activities in your life and ask, in terms of this distinction, these two distinctions between ameliorative and existential value.
How much of my time is solving problems that I’d rather not have to deal with? Do I have room to do the kinds of things that seem positively worthwhile and positively interesting, that maybe got me into this project, into this career, in the first place?
And then the other is, how much am I focusing on the sequence of projects, that the kind of treadmill of getting things done, as opposed to being able to value and appreciate the ongoing process of engagement?
Julie Gould: 13:29
So how do you get people to sort of step back and look at the bigger picture when they’ve constantly got these people, you know, on their backs, trying to get them to publish papers, to write reviews, to write grants to try and you know, hit those goals, especially in mid career, when that becomes really important in order to develop your independence as a researcher and to build up, you know, prestige, and make sure that you become known in your field?
Kieran Setiya: 13:54
You can make this transition without necessarily changing what you're doing or becoming less productive.
So all the time I'm engaging in telic activities. I still write philosophy papers, I still teach classes. So it’s not that I’ve stopped doing those things. It’s that I think of them as when I think about why I’m doing them and what I value about them, I think, “Well, I want to be engaging with philosophy and thinking about philosophy. And look, the only way to do that is to teach classes and write papers. So it's sort of I’m still doing that.”
But I think of it as sort of secondary or sort of subordinate to the thing that really matters, which is valuing philosophy and thinking about these kinds of philosophical questions.
So it’s not that you have to stop doing it. It’s more about reframing, which which comes first, which is primary.
Julie Gould: 14:37
Given that we know that the midlife malaise and the mid career slump are coming to us, should we do something?
Kieran Setiya: 14:44
So part of the problem is that I think for a lot of people, you don't have any bandwidth to do anything but try and finish your PhD, get a postdoc, get a job, set up a lab.
And so you very much, you have your head down until the point when you suddenly have a little room to breathe, you find yourself in mid-career.
Often that's the point at which you’ve got ageing parents, you’ve got kids, you’ve got so many demands on your time.
And then you start thinking, “Oh, what am I doing with my life? Is this really worthwhile? It’s just one thing after another.”
And given that that’s predictable, I think there's a lot to be said, for thinking about the structure of your career before you find yourself in the mid-career crisis.
Julie Gould: 15:27
We also know that many people have been through it before. So when I said earlier that there's no one around to guide us through our second puberty, actually, there might be. It might be worth reaching out to some of those people who have gone through it and come out the other side.
Hannes Schwandt: 15:42
Maybe what we want to be better would be that those midlife get mentoring from older colleagues, right? Get mentoring from those who are like around retirement age, or maybe already in retirement, right? This could be like a wonderful like, enriching job right, to help those struggling in midlife that bit, you know, through through that phase and navigating through that low.
Julie Gould: 16:01
So given them with thinking about prepping ahead of time, in the next episode of the Muddle of the middle series, I’ve taken some questions from early career researchers, and asked the current and previous mid career ones to answer them.
Hopefully this added insight and advice will help mentally prepare you for your future so that you don’t feel so much like it's a muddle, but more like a determined and excited much, taking the mid career in your stride.
Thanks for listening. I’m Julie Gould.