Kieran Setiya on Midlife: A Philosophical Guide

How can you reconcile yourself with the lives you will never lead, with possibilities foreclosed, and with nostalgia for lost youth? How can you accept the failings of the past, the sense of futility in the tasks that consume the present, and the prospect of death that blights the future? In Midlife, a self-help book with a difference, Kieran Setiya confronts the inevitable challenges of adulthood and middle age, showing how philosophy can help you thrive. Ranging from Aristotle, Schopenhauer, and John Stuart Mill to Virginia Woolf and Simone de Beauvoir, as well as drawing on Setiya’s own experience, Midlife combines imaginative ideas, surprising insights, and practical advice. Writing with wisdom and wit, Setiya makes a wry but passionate case for philosophy as a guide to life. Read on to learn more about the process of writing the book, the pervasiveness of the midlife crisis, and how philosophy can help.

How did you come to write this book?

You can probably guess! I think academic life is perfectly structured to induce a midlife crisis: decades of relentless striving in conditions of uncertainty, culminating either in failure or in a form of success that you leaves you wondering how you got here and what comes next. That’s how it was for me, anyway. Through a combination of luck and hard work, I had a tenured position in a good department and I found myself off-script for the first time in fifteen years. I recognized how fortunate I was, comparatively speaking: what I felt was not pointlessness, but nostalgia for lost alternatives, something like regret, a sense of emptiness in the relentless grind, and a visceral awareness of how short life is. It occurred to me that philosophy should have something to say about these challenges, which turn on the temporal structure of human life and the projects that occupy it—but that it hadn’t been said. The idea was to use my problem to solve itself: writing about the midlife crisis would be my answer to the midlife crisis. Midlife is the product.

How widespread is the midlife crisis?

That is a contentious question. The phrase comes from a 1965 essay by psychoanalyst Elliott Jaques, whose patients were experiencing their malaise in the midst of relative success. The idea caught on in the 1970s, with the publication of Gail Sheehy’s Passages: Predictable Crises of Adult Life. But the first serious attempts to test the prevalence of the midlife crisis were decidedly mixed. The MacArthur Network on Midlife Development conducted a huge survey in the 1990s and found that credible reports of a midlife crisis were not widespread. Social scientists rushed to declare the midlife crisis a myth. But the idea has been revived. According to influential research by economists David Blanchflower and Andrew Oswald, levels of life-satisfaction around the world take the shape of a gently curving U, starting high in youth, reaching their nadir in midlife, before recovering in old age. Not a crisis, necessarily, but a predictable dip in life-satisfaction that occupies middle age. Controversy continues to rage. Every six to twelve months, newspapers report a study that claims to prove the reality of the midlife crisis or debunk it as a myth. For what it is worth, my money is on the U-curve. But even if midlife is no more difficult than childhood or old age, it brings distinctive challenges: intense demands on one’s time, the legacy of an imperfect past, a limited but substantial future, and the repetition of projects that fill one’s days. These are the problems I confront in the book.

Can philosophy really help?

I think so. The idea of moral philosophy as a literature of self-improvement or self-help has a distinguished history: it is the divorce between these aims that is the novelty. What is distinctive of my approach is that, unlike other philosophers who have written self-help books, I don’t look primarily to the past. I am not trying to revive or rediscover the lost wisdom of the Stoics, for example, but to apply philosophy to the problems of midlife in original ways. There was no guarantee that the results of doing this would be consoling, but as it happens, I believe they are. There are philosophical ideas and arguments that help to address the feelings of regret, of missing out, of finitude, of emptiness and repetition, that we associate with middle age. I want to share these insights.

What sort of guidance do you offer? Can you give us an example?

I won’t give away all my secrets here, but I will introduce one.  It comes from an unexpected source: nineteenth-century pessimist and philosopher, Arthur Schopenhauer. Interpreting his argument about the futility of desire, I draw a crucial distinction between two sorts of activities: ones that aim at an end-point, projects like earning a promotion, getting married or writing a book, and ones that don’t, like going for a walk or spending time with friends. A characteristic defect of midlife – certainly, of mine – is excessive investment in projects. But projects are inherently self-subversive: to engage with them successfully is to complete them and so to expel them from your life. The solution is not to deny that projects matter but to invest more fully in the process, to value what I call “atelic” activities (from the Greek “telos” or end). For every project, there is a process of engagement: as well as finishing this book, there is the activity of reading and writing about philosophy; as well as making dinner for your kids or putting them to bed, there is the activity of parenting. Unlike projects, atelic activities do not aim at end-points at which they are completed; to engage with them is not to exhaust them; the satisfaction they provide is not deferred to the future but realized here and now. The final chapter of the book explains how to fill the void in the pursuit of projects by valuing the process, drawing comparisons with the appeal to mindfulness in Buddhism and clinical psychology. It is not an easy transition to make, but it can change your life.

What was it like to move from writing for colleagues to addressing a wider audience?

What I realized in working on Midlife is that the editorial voice in my head when I write for other philosophers is frustratingly argumentative. The nagging questions are “Do you mean X or Y?” and “What about this objection?” The result of listening to that voice is often a tiresome clarity. Not much fun to read. The voice in my head when I wrote Midlife was just as critical, but the refrain was very different. I think about an anecdote I heard from a friend whose family became impatient with stories recounted at the dinner table. When they got bored, they would chant in unison: “Faster! Funnier!” I can’t say how fast or funny I managed to be, but that is more or less the voice I had in mind. Making arguments and distinctions is unavoidable in a work of philosophy, but I tried to keep complexity to a minimum, to make things personal, and to write with my tongue ever so slightly in my cheek. There is a delicate synthesis of sincerity and irony in attempting to write a self-help book without pretending to have it all figured out. For the most part, I enjoyed the balancing act.

Is your book only for the middle-aged?

I hope not. While I had my midlife crisis right on cue at thirty-five, friends have told me that they had theirs earlier or that it is yet to come. You can face up to regret and missing out, to mortality and the tyranny of projects, at almost any age. I think these challenges are especially pressing around midlife, when you are likely to have made serious mistakes and irreversible decisions, when you have achieved success in your ambitions or must finally give them up, when you face the death of parents and loved ones, and when your own death is no longer an abstraction. But they do not go away, and you are welcome to confront them in advance! A case I dwell on in the book is that of Victorian activist and philosopher, John Stuart Mill, who had his crisis at the age of twenty. Not midlife, I know, but Mill was precocious. His attempt to philosophize his nervous breakdown was a major inspiration for my book.

 

setiyaKieran Setiya is professor of philosophy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He is the author of Reasons without Rationalism and Knowing Right from Wrong. He lives in Brookline, Massachusetts with his wife and son.

Oscar E. Fernandez on The Calculus of Happiness

FernandezIf you think math has little to do with finding a soulmate or any other “real world” preoccupations, Oscar Fernandez says guess again. According to his new book, The Calculus of Happiness, math offers powerful insights into health, wealth, and love, from choosing the best diet, to finding simple “all weather” investment portfolios with great returns. Using only high-school-level math (precalculus with a dash of calculus), Fernandez guides readers through the surprising results. He recently took the time to answer a few questions about the book and how empowering mathematics can be.

The title is intriguing. Can you tell us what calculus has to do with happiness?

Sure. The title is actually a play on words. While there is a sprinkling of calculus in the book (the vast majority of the math is precalculus-level), the title was more meant to convey the main idea of the book: happiness can be calculated, and therefore optimized.

How do you optimize happiness?

Good question. First you have to quantify happiness. We know from a variety of research that good health, healthy finances, and meaningful social relationships are the top contributors to happiness. So, a simplistic “happiness equation” is: health + wealth + love = happiness. This book then does what any good applied mathematician would do (I’m an applied mathematician): quantify each of the “happiness components” on the left-hand side of the equation (health, wealth, and love), and then use math to extract valuable insights and results, like how to optimize each component.

This process sounds very much like the subtitle, how a mathematical approach to life adds up to health, wealth, and love. But just to be sure, can you elaborate on the subtitle?

That’s exactly right. Often we feel like various aspects of our lives are beyond our control. But in fact, many aspects of our lives, including some of the most important ones (like health, wealth, and love), follow mathematical rules. And by studying the equations that emerge from these rules you can quickly learn how to manipulate those equations in your favor. That’s what I do in the book for health, wealth, and love.

Can you give us some examples/applications?

I can actually give you about 30 of them, roughly the number discussed in the book. But let me focus on my three favorite ones. The first is what I called the “rational food choice” function (Chapter 2). It’s a simple formula: divide 100 calories by the weight (say, in grams) of a particular food. This yields a number whose units are calories per gram, the units of “energy density.” Something remarkable then happens when you plot the energy densities of various foods on a graph: the energy densities of nearly all the healthy foods (like fruits and vegetables) are at most about 2 calories per gram. This simple mathematical insight, therefore, helps you instantly make healthier food choices. And following its advice, as I discuss at length in the book, eventually translates to lower risk for developing heart disease and diabetes, weight loss, and even an increase in your life span! The second example comes from Chapter 3; it’s a formula for calculating how many more years you have to work for before you can retire. Among the formula’s many insights is that, in the simplest case, this magic number depends entirely on the ratio of how much you save each year to how much you spend. And the formula, being a formula, tells you exactly how changing that ratio affects your time until retirement. The last example is based on astronomer Frank Drake’s equation for estimating the number of intelligent civilizations in our galaxy (Chapter 5). It turns out that this alien-searching equation can also be used to estimate the number of possible compatible partners that live near you! That sort of equates a good date with an intelligent alien, and I suppose I can see some similarities (like how rare they are to find).

The examples you’ve mentioned have direct relevance to our lives. Is that a feature of the other examples too?

Absolutely. And it’s more than just relevance—the examples and applications I chose are all meant to highlight how empowering mathematics can be. Indeed, the entire book is designed to empower the reader—via math—with concrete, math-backed and science-backed strategies for improving their health, wealth, and love life. This is a sampling of the broader principle embodied in the subtitle: taking a mathematical approach to life can help you optimize nearly every aspect of your life.

Will I need to know calculus to enjoy the book?

Not at all. Most of the math discussed is precalculus-level. Therefore, I expect that nearly every reader will have studied the math used in the book at some point in their K-12 education. Nonetheless, I guide the reader through the math as each chapter progresses. And once we get to an important equation, you’ll see a little computer icon next to it in the margin. These indicate that there are online interactive demonstrations and calculators I created that go along with the formula. The online calculators make it possible to customize the most important formulas in the book, so even if the math leading up to them gets tough, you can still use the online resources to help you optimize various aspects of health, wealth, and love.

Finally, you mention a few other features of the book in the preface. Can you tell us about some of those?

Sure, I’ll mention two particular important ones. Firstly, at least 1/3 of the book is dedicated to personal finance. I wrote that part of the book to explicitly address the low financial literacy in this country. You’ll find understandable discussions of everything from taxes to investing to retirement (in addition to the various formulas derived that will help you optimize those aspects of your financial life). Finally, I organized the book to follow the sequence of math topics covered in a typical precalculus textbook. So if you’re a precalculus student, or giving this book to someone who is, this book will complement their course well. (I also included the mathematical derivations of the equations presented in the chapter appendixes.) This way the youngest readers among us can read about how empowering and applicable mathematics can be. It’s my hope that this will encourage them to continue studying math beyond high school.

Oscar E. Fernandez is assistant professor of mathematics at Wellesley College and the author of Everyday Calculus: Discovering the Hidden Math All around Us and The Calculus of Happiness: How a Mathematical Approach to Life Adds Up to Health, Wealth, and Love.