Signs of midlife boredom that mean you could be on the brink of a crisis

Breaking your habits can stave off a midlife crisis – here's how
Experts say we need to learn to "dishabituate", or challenge the comfort of our daily habits

How many of the same things do you do in exactly the same order virtually every single day? From the eggs cooked a certain way for breakfast and our commute on the same train every morning, to our evening slump on the sofa with a glass of wine. Far more of us are stuck in a rut than we might like to think – particularly during midlife, when a plethora of competing demands on our time make us cling all the tighter to tried-and-tested routines.

But according to neuroscientist Tali Sharot, the author of Look Again: The Power of Noticing What Was Always There, these daily patterns are a major contributor to the sense of ennui and dissatisfaction many midlifers feel.

“When things aren’t changing around us, we don’t think about them,” says Sharot, a professor of cognitive neuroscience at UCL. “We can find ourselves becoming habituated to everything from a great view or tasty meal to a loving spouse, meaning we notice and appreciate them less.”

Instead, we need to learn to “dishabituate”, or challenge the comfort of our daily habits, to open ourselves to new experiences, perspectives and connections – all crucial for staving off the boredom which can spiral into midlife crisis. Shaking ourselves out of our rut can help us rediscover our joy and get more out of life.

Why we love habits

Put simply, habits are routines of behaviour repeated regularly, until they become effortless. “The process is our brain’s way of increasing efficiency,” says Sharot. “We can perform certain actions automatically, without too much thought, allowing us to conserve our brainpower for more important things.”

In midlife, we rely more than ever on our daily routines, because it is when we are likely to have the most responsibilities. “You may have children, you could be relatively senior at work, and perhaps you’re taking care of older parents,” she says. “Habits help us cope with it all.”

They’re also often sold to us as the route to better health and wellbeing, with experts such as James Clear, the bestselling author of Atomic Habits, arguing that building new patterns creates big changes. And, adds Sharot: “There are lots of habits that are really good for us, such as brushing our teeth and washing our hands. But some habits can reduce our creativity and our enjoyment in life.” These are what we need to challenge.

How midlife boredom means we take people and experiences for granted

Just as we can become habituated to, say, going to the gym three times a week, the same can apply to more important parts of our lives, including our loved ones and experiences we once cherished, such as hearing about our children’s day, diminishing the joy they bring us.

“It makes evolutionary sense that the brain cares about what is new, rather than what has always been there,” says Sharot. “It allows us to be ready for things which are potentially important for our survival, or dangerous. If nothing is changing, the brain saves its resources.”

It’s why we can adapt to a plunge into a cold swimming pool, or stop noticing the smell of smoke hanging over a room. Unfortunately, it also means we can become numb to the aspects of life which deserve our focus.

In her book, Sharot uses the example of a visual illusion featuring clouds of colour which seem to turn grey after a few seconds of looking at them. “When the neurons in your brain get the same input, after a while they just stop firing,” she says. “It’s why [the] peak of enjoyment of a holiday comes after 43 hours – it gives you the chance to get used to things, but then joy starts dwindling from that point.”

This is analogous to what happens with more complex things in life, she says. “When we have a comfortable home, a loving relationship or an interesting job, at the beginning they’re exciting, but over time, we’re just less responsive.”

If we’re not careful, we can start to view the most important people in our lives as props; just another part of our routine.

Lack of learning causes stagnation

“People in midlife have the lowest subjective happiness ratings for all age groups,” says Sharot. She believes this is primarily because our rate of learning is also at its lowest during this life-stage.

During early adulthood, we learn new things all the time, including how to navigate the world of work, pay bills and form relationships. Later, when we retire and our children leave home, we’re also forced to learn new patterns, and happiness increases again.

But in midlife we “mostly live in one place with our families, and rather than looking upwards or developing our careers, we’re just maintaining them”. This stasis can contribute to that sense of midlife stagnation.

Are you an explorer or an exploiter?

Sharot says that by nature, we can all be divided into two camps: those who love exploring new experiences, and those who find what they like and repeat, or “exploit”, it. “Explorers will seek out different places to visit, try new things and speak to different people, while exploiters are those who have their favourite restaurant, where they eat the same thing at the same table,” she says.

“Both are important. You don’t want to explore all the time – it’s good to learn what you like.” In midlife, however, too many of us are exploiters, sticking with what we know, and this behaviour fuels the feelings of ennui which can trigger midlife crises.

“The optimal point looks different for different people, but it lies in a balance between exploring and exploiting – and where possible, looking for more opportunities to explore.”

Jolt yourself out of complacency

The routes to dishabituation are breaking our habits, or changing them. Both sound daunting, particularly in midlife. “The constraints of life make it more difficult to make changes, especially the kind of big changes we might have made in the past,” says Sharot. “But there are things we can do which are relatively easy, and we don’t realise how much they will improve our lives.”

One way is to take a break from something we’ve become habituated to and come back to it with fresh eyes, “which allows us to perceive it again, and triggers what is called ‘re-sparkling’,” says Sharot.

Numerous studies show the psychological benefits to breaking up experiences, even positive ones. “In one counterintuitive study, people were asked if they would prefer to listen to their favourite song in parts, or all at once, and although they all said all at once, they actually found people enjoyed it more with interruptions,” she says.

Another example is to take several small trips per year, rather than one big holiday. If one of them could be without your family, so much the better, but where that’s not possible, Sharot cites research from Yale psychologist and happiness expert Laurie Santos, who suggests that even closing our eyes and imagining a life without those we love can reignite feelings of gratitude.

Embrace small changes to spark your creativity

Sharot is firm in her belief that “happiness in our daily lives is very much the result of the small things”, and when it comes to changing our habits, even the smallest differences can add up. “It could be changing your environment – for instance, working in a café instead of your office at home – or commuting via a different route, or making a point of speaking to someone you haven’t spoken to before. Try taking a course in something outside of your work, to teach you a new skill. If you always play tennis, try swimming. All of these things add variety into your life, which makes it psychologically richer.”

Dishabituating in this way will “enhance creativity and put us in a state of learning, which is something we find joyful,” she says. “And studies show that change in and of itself enhances wellbeing. It’s necessary for us to thrive.”

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