Midlife: A Philosophical Guide, by Kieran Setiya (Princeton University Press), £18.95/$22.95
Kieran Setiya is having a midlife crisis, and he guesses you might be having one too. So he’s written a “self-help guide” that attempts to apply “the tools philosophers use” to this problem. Although one might presume this crisis is better handled by the tools of the clinical psychologist, Setiya argues the problems he is facing in middle age are distinctively existential in character (“questions about value and meaning in life”) and are thus amenable to a form of cognitive therapy that employs “philosophical insights that can illuminate middle age”.
While I agree that philosophers have something interesting to contribute to this conversation, unfortunately this book contains little philosophy, and is better described as a work of amateur psychology. I doubt, however, that the book is even successful as a self-help manual, for much of the advice proffered is obvious (“you mustn’t be too self-involved”) or clichéd (you should “live in the present”), and can be summed up quite simply: try to find satisfaction in life.
The book begins with a brief history of the midlife crisis, a phrase coined in 1965 but revived in 2008 when economists found people’s level of reported happiness to be shaped like a U, starting and ending high with a notable dip during middle-age. Next, we are told the story of John Stuart Mill’s nervous breakdown and subsequent depression. From Mill we garner two insights: first, “you have to care about something other than yourself”, and second, pursue activities that have “existential value”, in other words, that which “makes life positively good” and “explains why life is worth living”.
The second claim merits further discussion, for what makes an activity positively good? And why do some activities (but presumably not all) make life worth living? A sampling of at least some of the many prominent philosophers who have written on this topic would have been helpful. Instead, we are given a long list of activities with existential value, which include philosophical contemplation, scientific inquiry, poetic and artistic appreciation, but also “telling funny stories, listening to pop music, swimming”, and playing “golf”, which Setiya describes as “the most existential of all activities”. Without a formal account of what has existential value and why, this list suggests the rather banal conclusion that we should try do things we enjoy (and, perhaps, learn to play golf).
The third chapter reflects on the nostalgia of childhood, a time when our options seemed limitless. Setiya’s advice for coping with the feeling of “missing out” that strikes in middle age once again points to the obvious: every choice you make involves loss of some kind, and assuming your life is good (which it is!) then you should be happy with what you have. If matters were that simple, why did Setiya need to write a book on this topic? And more importantly, why should we read it?
The fourth chapter tackles the trickier forms of dissatisfaction that arise when one regrets past decisions. Once again, there is a philosophical literature on regret and unhappiness that is clearly relevant, and would have been helpful in advancing this discussion. But Setiya ignores this work, instead proffering up such platitudes as: “A simple way not to regret your mistakes is to have things turn out better than you hoped”.
What happens when you are not so lucky? We are told to reflect on the lives that would not have existed had we not made such poor decisions. This advice is clearly limited to regrettable decisions that create new life, such as bad marriages and unwanted pregnancies. What about other cases of regret? We are presented with a recap of the previous chapter: be happy with what you have; life could be a lot worse.
The views of Epicurus, Lucretius and Derek Parfit are discussed in the fifth chapter, where Setiya tackles our fear of death. My own fears were not assuaged by the advice that we must accept our mortality. In the final chapter, Setiya offers yet another diagnosis of the midlife crisis, which he attributes to the “self-destructive” pursuit of projects, because completing them eliminates an important source of meaning in our lives. Rather than striving to achieve our goals, we are told to “find meaning in the process” by investing our time in activities that “have no point of termination or exhaustion”.
Setiya never entertains the idea that one might receive immense satisfaction from completing one’s projects, nor does he consider the possibility of starting new projects, which will create new avenues for meaning and value. Once again, Setiya misses an opportunity to engage with extensive philosophical work on the topic of what makes life meaningful, but opts instead for platitudes and clichés, which are exemplified by the title of the last chapter: “Living in the Present.”