A simplistic theory of the midlife crisis.
The midlife crisis. It's a cliche. It's about aging, fear of death, existential dread, regret. It's a reliable way to make light of something we all feel just beneath the surface as we reach that "certain age," which is different for everyone.
I have a theory. I'm not a scientist or a mental health professional, but I think the old cliche of the balding man with the new sports car is on to something. I think the midlife crisis has something to do with toys - how we get rid of them, how we replace them and what happens when we don't.
Let me explain.
Growing Out of Old Toys and Into New Ones
When I turned 10, things started changing. I was headed into middle school, and that meant no more kid stuff. I looked around my bedroom, decorated in pink and lavender, shelves filled with collections of miniatures. I had collections of collections, and I was very proud of coming up with that idea.
I collected unicorns, cats, rocks, coins, stickers, glass animals, and of course, dolls. But as I looked down the barrel of 6th grade, I knew something had to give.
One by one, my collection of collections was boxed and put away in the garage. In place of unicorns, I now proudly displayed centerfolds from Tiger Beat Magazine of Michael J. Fox, Kirk Cameron, the Coreys and SO many more. Always the proud innovator, I was now the proud creator of cute boy centerfold wallpaper.
A few years later, in high school, I would become obsessed with fighter jets. Down came Tiger Beat and up went F16 models and posters of hair band rock stars.
This process happened again and again as I got older - transitioning from high school to college, then graduating from college. Each time, I put away old toys and replaced them with new ones that felt more appropriate to my new station in life.
But then it all stopped.
No More Toys?
In my late twenties, eager to migrate from twenty-something living standards to my grownup thirties, I put away my toys again. Only this time, they didn't get replaced.
As I finished grad school and landed my first high-stakes job, life got more and more hectic. I put the few toys I had left on the shelf and life went on without them. Eventually, there were no more toys at all.
Toys become hard to justify at a certain point. First of all, we don't have time for them anymore. Right? Life becomes a series of appointments and obligations. Work hours start to bleed into “regular life,” and we get rewarding feedback from bosses and co-workers who noticed that we're emailing after work. I mean, what a great way to show dedication to our jobs, that we're serious about getting ahead. For my co-workers with families, I didn't understand how they survived.
For myself, when I did have free time, toys didn't enter into the equation.
(This is where I should probably define what I mean by toys.)
What, Exactly, Are Toys?
In infancy, toys are used to help us learn motor skills, hand-eye coordination and basic concepts like object permanence and cause and effect. Like the other animals on this planet, we played to learn.
As children grow, toys spark their imaginations, introduce them to new ideas and encourage creativity. And I'm not talking about toys that Amazon can deliver to your doorstep. Toys can be anything from an empty paper towel roll to a leaf.
When we're adults, toys can continue to teach and help our brains to grow. My mother's toys have always been fabric-related. She loves to make quilts or embroidery with unique color combinations and patterns. Toys can be gardens, dune buggies, camping gear, book clubs or sex toys. (And empty paper towel rolls and leaves are always good too.)
A lot of adults do engage in hobbies and activities. But many of us don't. What we end up doing with our spare time doesn't engage us like our toys did. When we stop playing, we stop growing. It's as true for us grownups as it is for children - and just as devastating.
Not Toys: Things that Numb Us
Many of the pass times we choose when we have a moment to ourselves serve to numb our bodies and minds. Unlike play, these activities don't engage us in ways that lead to growth and creativity. They can leave us more exhausted, and even more depressed and anxious.
Now, don't get me wrong. At the end of a long day, when our minds are already working on tomorrow's to-do list and the kids have finally gone to bed, how can anyone not want to veg out and turn off? Whatever helps us do that, especially in those moments, feels like a welcome friend. But I want to make the distinction - they are not toys and the time we spend numbed out is not play.
Happy Hour Anyone?
Booze is the most obvious example. It gives us a burst of serotonin with the first buzz - a sensation that is pure bliss after a long day. In moderation, a little chemical assistance from stress to relaxation can feel like a miracle. But sometimes, that blissful buzz doesn't last nearly as long as we want it to. And the more we drink to keep it going, the more we numb out. The bad sensations may fade, but so do the good.
TV binging is another fun thing that can start out as play, but become something that numbs us out. We've all heard that sitting for long periods is bad for our bodies. But it does feel good. My husband and I have started re-watching The Sopranos, and we're hooked like it's 1999. But what happens to our brains when we binge?
In an article for NBC News, Dr. Renee Carr, Psy.D, a clinical psychologist, says we feel great pleasure when binge-watching because our brains produce dopamine. She explains, "...your body experiences a drug-like high. You experience a pseudo-addiction to the show because you develop cravings for dopamine." It's the same process our bodies go through at the start of any addiction, even drugs or alcohol.
Just like with alcohol, it's all about moderation. TV and movies are a great way to unplug and relieve stress. They can also spark our imaginations and help us be more playful. But when binging becomes our primary free-time activity, it isn't play anymore. It can contribute to higher levels of depression and anxiety. And if we're binging alone, it can lead to isolation and loneliness. As an introvert, I understand the need for me-time, but numbed-out me-time can be a dangerous habit.
Fashionable Fun - Not That Fun
If you haven't experienced it yourself yet, articles have been circulating the web explaining how social media can negatively affect our mental health. I won't rehash the multitude of ways this can happen, but I have a particular beef with how social media can inform our play choices.
Social media can shape our ideas of what fun is. In a city like Los Angeles, where I live, there are hundreds of different ways to spend a Saturday night. On the weekends, people love to show off the cool things they're doing on social media, and these posts influence us.
When I decided a while back that I needed to "get out more," I decided to go to an outdoor film screening at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery. Once I arrived, I forgot how much I hate large crowds, squeezing into a tiny square of grass on a blanket and sitting on the ground for three hours with my sore knees.
I went because it was the kind of event that showed I was a fun Angelino enjoying my oh-so-cool city. The earlier days of my Facebook timeline is filled with check-ins at these types of events. I went. I took a picture of myself there. I posted it online. It fed into this idea I had about what kind of identity I felt I needed to adopt to be successful and cool. I was a girl about town, right? Girls about town are interesting and fun and do the cool things. But at some point, I started to realize that my fun had been chosen for me. It became more a reflection of the culture I lived in, not a reflection of me.
What happened to the fifth grader who watched Robotech and Vultron even though the other girls thought it was weird? What happened to the girl who spent hours in the backyard with a notebook making detailed notes in an attempt to understand the language of cats? Who wrote poems about squirrels? Who created swimming pools by digging holes in the ground and filling them with water? I didn’t care how muddy I got. I was living in the lap of luxury. Who needs chlorine when you have a shovel and a hose?
Are we capable of accessing that way of playing again? As an adult? I believe we are.
My Theory on the Midlife Crisis
I believe that the process of putting away our toys and trading them in for new ones is a good thing. As we change and grow, so do our ideas about what's fun. But when we stop replacing our old toys and move into a life of shoulds and to-do lists, we stop growing. We feel uncomfortable, so we numb ourselves. We engage in socially acceptable fun and stop asking ourselves what we WANT to do for fun. We wouldn't want to do anything weird and outside of the norm.
After we grow up, so much of our lives seem to be chosen for us - or based on choices we made long ago that can't be easily undone. And we start believing that this is just the way it is. Everything we do, every second of the day, has a purpose - an objective. From the time we wake up until the time we go to sleep. We're checking things off of a neverending to-do list.
If this isn't the way you want to live anymore, you can change it. It'll feel strange - like you're breaking the rules. You'll feel self-indulgent, but it'll make you a better wife, husband, mom, dad, employee or friend.
It's time for some new toys.
(I have a few paper towel rolls I can share if you want?)
Hi! My name is Kara. I'm a writer, speaker and podcaster living in Los Angeles. I love to talk about play, but had some obstacles to overcome before I could really access it for myself. So now I talk and write about that too.
Now it's your turn...
Tell Me Your Story
This blog contains affiliate links. I may earn a small commission (at no extra cost to you) if you use these links to make a purchase.
I use these funds to buy treats for my cyclops dog, so it’s a win for everyone, really.
The Gifts of Imperfection, by Brené Brown
This Naked Mind, a book by Annie Grace that will change your relationship to alcohol.
The Alcohol Experiment, a free, guided, online 30-day challenge with readings, videos and a robust community led by Annie Grace