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Waiting for your midlife crisis? Relax. It’s probably not coming.

According to a growing body of research, midlife upheavals are more fiction than fact.

“Despite its popularity in the popular culture, there isn’t much evidence for a midlife crisis,” says Susan Krauss Whitbourne, a professor of psychology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. She is conducting a continuing study of more than 450 people who graduated from college between 1965 and 2006. The study’s latest installment is scheduled for publication in 2015.

The term midlife crisis, coined in 1965 by psychoanalyst Elliot Jacques, was popularized in the 1970s by authors including Gail Sheehy. It quickly made its way into self-help books, television sitcoms and movies, from “Manhattan” to “American Beauty.”

While initial research painted the midlife crisis as a predictable phase of adult psychological development, more recent studies on groups that are more representative of the population as a whole have largely debunked that notion, says Elaine Wethington, a professor of sociology at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y.

According to a continuing national study of midlife funded by the National Institute on Aging, 26% of adults ages 25 to 75 report having had a midlife crisis. Among respondents who are 50-plus, slightly more, 35%, say they’ve had one.

But in the group that includes 30- and 40-somethings, only about half who reported having a midlife crisis said it was triggered by “inner turmoil and angst associated with getting older,” says Margie Lachman, a professor of psychology at Brandeis University and a researcher on the study. The rest of the crises, she says, were linked to problems that aren’t unique to midlife, including job loss and divorce.

Moreover, about the same proportion of study participants say they experienced crises at other points in their lives—a result that is echoed by Prof. Whitbourne’s results. Because many of the participants in her study who had crises in their 40s and 50s also experienced similar upheavals earlier in their lives, Prof. Whitbourne concludes, midlife doesn’t put people at higher risk for crises.

That’s not to say that midlife is life’s happiest period. In a 2008 study of 500,000 Americans and Europeans, economists Andrew Oswald of the U.K.’s University of Warwick and David Blanchflower of Dartmouth College say life satisfaction reaches a low point around the mid-40s, perhaps due to stress associated with the simultaneous demands of work and family. But it rises after that.

Prof. Lachman’s research indicates that life satisfaction increases significantly from the 40s to the 50s—and again from the 50s to the 60s—as children and careers mature and salaries reach peak levels. While midlife is often a time of stress, Prof. Wethington says, those between the ages of 40 and 60 also “have the resources and experience to manage more daily stress than younger people do.” Midlifers, she adds, are “champion copers.”

Jeffrey Arnett, a professor of psychology at Clark University in Worcester, Mass., says his research indicates that the 40s, 50s and 60s are often a time of “re-evaluation and reassessment,” particularly for empty-nesters. But while “there is anxiety that goes along with that,” he says, many people also describe a feeling of “renewed freedom and possibility.”

Midlife, he adds, “is a surprisingly positive time of life.”

Ms. Tergesen is a staff reporter for The Wall Street Journal in New York. She can be reached at

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