Chimps, Orangutans and Midlife Crisis

Humans are not the only species to suffer through midlife crisis.  According to a recent study published by the National Academy of Sciences, chimps and orangutans seem to go through a similar-type dip as well.  In monitoring more than 500 primates in zoos in the US, Japan, and Canada, researchers used a brief questionnaire to assess the contentment level of these animals.

These questionnaires were simply observations from the researchers.  However, behavior seemed to follow the familiar U-shaped dip that is often used to describe human midlife crisis.  Older apes and orangutans, behaviorally, seemed to look and act differently from their younger counterparts.  This behavior was displayed through anxiety, posture, and overall appearance of contentment (or lack of contentment).  Ages of the animals were from 28 to 35, the human equivalent of ages 45 to 50.

As with any scientific study, the results were met with some skepticism and criticism.  For one, it’s not like these chimps and orangutans could tell their observers that they were depressed or suffering from midlife malaise.  They couldn’t go out and cheat on their spouses/significant other, buy a high-powered sports car, get an awesome tattoo or completely revamp their wardrobe – common red flags associated with a midlife crisis.  I’m no scientist, and the only thing I know about primates is what I’ve seen in Planet of the Apes (the Charlton Heston classic, not the Mark Wahlberg remake).  So what does this mean?

Thinking ape

There were some interesting observations made in this study:

The “U-shaped curve of human happiness.”  Apparently we go from well being (youth, health, excitement for the future), plunging in midlife (failed dreams, transition and anxiety) to contentment (wisdom, success, achievement, appreciation/value of what you have).

Suicide and anti-depressant use peak at middle-age.  This is usually triggered by social and economic conditions.  You haven’t yet made your first million.  The office worker who never became a professional athlete or stay at home mom who never pursued her dream to perform on Broadway.  Apes realizing they will never be the alpha male?  Failure. Regret.  Lost opportunities.

An evolutionary explanation is even more intriguing.  According to one of the researchers, “Maybe nature doesn’t want us to be contented in middle age, doesn’t want us sitting around contentedly with our feet up in a tree.  Maybe discontent lights a fire under people, causing them to achieve more – for themselves and their family.”

I like this theory.  If you’ve ever felt discontent, it’s a very uncomfortable feeling.  A dull, continuous pain that may subside at times but does not altogether go away.  It’s that little voice in your head that says, “Try it!”, “Do it!”, or “Why not me?”  It’s the feeling that tells you you’re equipped to write a book, start your own business, apply for that promotion, or talk to that little red-haired girl.

So maybe your alpha male time has passed.  So what?  There are a million other opportunities available to us each day.  That’s the beauty of life…choice.  Do the thing that scares you.  Follow the path that’s calling you.  Take risks and fail.  Whatever you do, don’t be the chimp or orangutan with his feet up in a tree.

What is something you’ve always wanted to do that you can start on today?