We're Not Alone! Chimps Have Midlife Crisis Too

Scientists Identify 'U-Curve' Changes in Primate Behavior

By Reuters

Published November 19, 2012.
  • Print
  • Share Share

Forty- and 50-somethings in the throes of a mid-life crisis should probably stop blaming a troubled marriage, their kid’s college costs, or technology that makes them feel about as modern as papyrus compared to their younger colleagues.

A new study finds that chimpanzees and orangutans, too, often experience a mid-life crisis, suggesting the causes are inherent in primate biology and not specific to human society.

“We were just stunned” when data on the apes showed a U-shaped curve of happiness, said economist Andrew Oswald of the University of Warwick in England and a co-author of the paper, which was published on Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA.

The U-shaped curve of human happiness and other aspects of well-being are as thoroughly documented as the reasons for it are controversial. Since 2002 studies in some 50 countries have found that well-being is high in youth, plunges in mid-life and rises in old age. The euphoria of youth comes from unlimited hopes and good health, while the contentment and serenity of the elderly likely reflects “accumulated wisdom and the fact that when you’ve seen friends and family die, you value what you have,” said Oswald.

The reasons for the plunge in well-being in middle age, when suicides and use of anti-depressants both peak, are murkier. In recent years researchers have emphasized sociological and economic factors, from the accountant’s recognition that she will never realize her dream of starring on Broadway to the middle manager’s fear of being downsized, not to mention failing marriages and financial woes.

In what Oswald, 58, calls “a burst of madness,” since no such study had ever been attempted, he and his colleagues decided to see whether creatures that don’t have career regrets or underwater mortgages might nevertheless suffer a well-being plunge in middle age.

They enlisted colleagues to assess the well-being of 155 chimps in Japanese zoos, 181 in U.S. and Australian zoos and 172 orangs in zoos in the United States, Canada, Australia and Singapore. Keepers, volunteers, researchers and caretakers who knew the apes well used a four-item questionnaire to assess the level of contentment in the animals, said psychologist Alex Weiss of Scotland’s University of Edinburgh. One question, for instance, asked how much pleasure the animals - which ranged from infants to graybeards - get from social interactions.

All three groups of apes experienced mid-life malaise: a U-shaped contentment curve with the nadir at ages 28, 27 and 35, respectively, comparable to human ages of 45 to 50.

Why would chimps and orangs have a mid-life crisis? It could be that their societies are similar enough to the human variety that social, and not only biological, factors are at work, Oswald said. Perhaps apes feel existential despair, too, when they realize they’ll never be the alpha male or female.

An evolutionary explanation is even more intriguing. “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,” he said. “Maybe discontent lights a fire under people, causing them to achieve more” for themselves and their family.

“By knowing our results, people might be gentler on themselves” when they experience a mid-life crisis, Oswald said. “Knowing that it’s biological, they’ll realize that if they can just hang on they’ll likely come out the other side.”


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight": http://jd.fo/f4Q1Q
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • Should couples sign a pre-pregnancy contract, outlining how caring for the infant will be equally divided between the two parties involved? Just think of it as a ketubah for expectant parents:
  • Many #Israelis can't make it to bomb shelters in time. One of them is Amos Oz.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.