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Female mid-life crisis: Has an epidemic of narcissism made women delusional?

The vogue for middle-aged women finding themselves – and then writing tell-all books about it – has become big business. But it makes their journeys of discovery as predictable as the daily commute, says Charlotte Raven

Researchers have found that the most profound difference between men and women in middle age is that women are twice as likely to be hopeful about the future.

A recent article in Time magazine suggests that my generation of women are upbeat in midlife, perceiving the crisis as an opportunity: "The very word 'crisis', while suitably dramatic, seems somehow wrong for this generation's experience."

This optimism appears well founded – my generation has many more options than our mothers. Thanks to higher incomes, better education and long experience at juggling multiple roles, today's women have the wherewithal to avoid doing anything stupidly impulsive, like buying a Porsche or running off with a waiter in the manner of Shirley Valentine.

At the equivalent age, men can't be so sure of maintaining their dignity, let alone achieving their newly calibrated midlife goals. The term "midlife crisis" was coined by Canadian psychoanalyst Elliot Jacques in 1965. Since then, countless male writers have described the horror of being forced to confront their mortality. Most recently, William Leith conveyed the misery of being messed around by "the slut, time" in his book Bits of Me are Falling Apart: "Right now I can't help thinking about the same few things and these things are as follows: Death, Disease, Failure, Humiliation and Loss."

Leith's angst seems justified; aged 44, he can't make enough money to support himself as a journalist and his relationship is "in the balance".

Leith never thinks that this would be a great moment for re-inventing himself. The idea of change seems far-fetched. He wishes he could "turn a corner", but lacks a plausible strategy for getting there. The possibility of retraining or downshifting is never discussed. He isn't telling his friends that the crisis is a blessing in disguise, as women increasingly are.

Women are used to putting a positive spin on everything. They find it easy in this case, because the present generation of midlifers are in denial about their mortality. Their journey isn't towards acceptance of the facts of their humanity, but rather to a more robust form of denial. Modern women reaching midlife often say they want to live more authentically, yet this goal is undermined by an urge to "optimise".

Looking back on their lives, they regret the compromises and trade-offs. An audit of their achievements often reveals troubling ellipses. The career woman notes that she never mastered pastry. Her shop-bought lemon tarts suggest she isn't the rounded person she aspired to be in her twenties. She comforts herself with the thought that there's still time. Those who sensibly dismissed the notion of having it all in their youth now think it is possible, if you judge it across a whole life-span.

Those who think optimisation is a route to happiness would be well advised to read The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin or Poser – My Life in 23 Yoga Poses by Claire Dederer. These recently-published midlife memoirs are accounts of anhedonia, a mental malaise which strikes when conditions are optimal. They've got the lives they dreamt of in their twenties – the creatively fulfilling job, cute husband, photogenic kids – but the good life seems strangely oppressive. Their midlife complaint is summed up by Gretchen Rubin in the introduction to The Happiness Project: "I had everything I could possibly want – yet I was failing to appreciate it."

Rubin blames her flaws, believing that she doesn't (quite) measure up to her apartment in New York's exclusive Upper East Side.

"I wanted to perfect my character," she declares. Predictably, the process involves "deliverable lists" and business-school stratagems rather than therapy.

She's not raising her consciousness, but gilding the lily of the self.

The first month of the Happiness Project is spent cleaning out her closet and finding an elite personal trainer. Month Two sees Rubin reframing her perception of her husband. Instead of getting annoyed when he goes to the gym first thing in the morning, she thinks: "How would I feel if Jamie never wanted to go to the gym, or worse, if he couldn't go? I have a gorgeous, athletic husband. How lucky I am that he wants to go the gym."

Rubin is understandably anxious that her privilege will prevent her from developing backbone. She realises it's an important quality and that you can't be perfect without it. Yet, try as she might, she can't source adversity on the Upper East Side. Claire Dederer has better luck in Seattle. Her local yoga studio delivers an adversity "experience" for its privileged clients.

"Bent and pinned" in pigeon pose, Dederer thinks she's as discomfited as a young black boy trying to enter a racially segregated high school in the Fifties. This form of self-oppression is as close as Dederer and her ilk will get to adversity.

Modern self-discovery narratives are "journeys" in the X Factor or Big Brother sense. Before she made it, Julie Powell was working as a secretary for the government agency responsible for 9/11. To evade mediocrity, she sets herself the "challenge" of cooking her way through the 524 recipes in Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking in 365 days.

The constructed jeopardy – "risking her marriage, her job and her cat's well-being" – will be familiar to fans of reality formats.

The highs and lows of the "experience" were recorded on a blog, The Julie and Julia Project, which became a book and a film.

Julie Powell namechecks her pets in her author profile at the front of the book. I'd expected the film version of The Julie and Julia Project to be twee. Watching the obligatory "couple wrestling with live lobster" scene, modelled on Annie Hall, I felt indignant the lobster's behalf. The scene would have been justified if it had served the protagonists' supposed goal of self-development. By her own admission, Powell learns nothing from the encounter. That wrestling wasn't an analogy. She wasn't wrestling with her conscience or with the meaning of love. When she's done with the wrestling, she giggles inanely, reminding us that we're watching a bathetic re-enactment of earlier self-discovery tropes.

The feminist self-discovery narratives of the Seventies were real journeys. The married heroine of Fear of Flying didn't conjure adversity from thin air. In the first chapter, Isabella dumps her analyst for peddling misogynist clichés like "the power behind the throne". She notes sadly that clever and stupid women were brainwashed "all the same" by the myth of romantic love. Her A-starred head is full of "soupy longing", but dumping her husband sets her on a path towards self-determination, not romantic optimisation.

The lobster scene in Julie and Julia made me think, oddly, of the murder scenes in Thelma and Louise. The protagonists of this feminist road movie are forced into some difficult corners. Their dilemmas are more weighty than whether to do mayonnaise in the Magimix. When they kill, they respond appropriately, acting as if something important has happened.

Their seriousness of purpose is evident, even when they're acting irresponsibly. Their modern counterparts are frivolous, even when they're acting responsibly.

In the "Remember Love" section of The Happiness Project, Gretchen Rubin organises a wonderful, memorable party for her mother-in-law's birthday, not for altruistic reasons, but because she calculates that acting in a loving way will amplify her loving feelings. She also hopes her husband will reward her with jewellery.

The protagonists of feminist self-discovery narratives weren't calculating. When Isabella Wing left her husband, she hadn't thought it through.

These fables of feminist self-discovery inspired my mother's generation to become more fully themselves. By contrast, the modern midlife crisis memoir enjoin us to think commercially and find novel ways of marketing our midlife persona.

We might decide to video an attempt to take up golf and call it an art installation. Or blog about a decision to spend a year not wearing shoes, while claiming, as Rubin does, that the notion was a real-life epiphany that came to her one rainy afternoon, rather than a proposal for a book.

The journey recounted in Elizabeth Gilbert's book Eat, Pray, Love was fully funded by her book advance. One can always tell when the journey is shaped by the requirements of the narrative, rather than the other way round.

Sounding like her pitch to her publishers, Gilbert tells the reader: "I wanted to thoroughly explore one aspect of myself set against the backdrop of each country in a place that has done that one thing very well."

So she explores the "art of pleasure" in Italy, the "art of devotion" in India and the art of balancing the two in Bali.

These narratives breed unjustified discontent. The papers are full of midlifers erroneously claiming that what they have isn't "enough". Inspired by Gilbert, they go off on a long holiday somewhere where the inhabitants are poor but happy, like Tanzania. They don't perceive the irony when they return with a dead-cert business opportunity that came to them while gazing at the fishermen on Lake Tanganyika. One had a vision of a woman-only gym franchise for the over-35s.

Another pictured herself at the helm of a company marketing adventure holidays to midlife female clients. The name, what else but Gutsy Women Travel?

The Eat, Pray, Love tour offered by Kensington Travel seems no less contrived than the original. It costs $10,178 for a 27-day trip. Those with less cash than Gilbert to invest in self-actualisation shouldn't be discouraged. You can go on a "journey" without leaving your flat.

It is, of course, necessary to separate from your loved ones, but this is do-able if you alienate them by privileging your "inner voice" over their outer one. Ignore your husband's interpretation of your midlife conundrums and you're ready for the off.

It worked for Powell. Both she and Rubin equate success with self-realisation: "So I did this crazy cooking thing and did it saucily with style and courage and I was rewarded.

"Suddenly I was successful. My successful mastery of this skill had given me feelings of gratification and mastery that in turn had energised me to push even harder."

I don't feel I'm doing my midlife thing saucily with style and courage. I feel more like William Leith: fearful and full of regret about the decisions that have meant the dreams of my youth are unfulfilled.

Perhaps things would be better if I'd found a way of successfully marketing this regret. But I can't think of a project that showcases it, or an economically fruitful way of using my experience to help others navigate their path through midlife.

Leith fantasises about writing a popular self-help book. Perhaps I should become a life coach.

I comfort myself with the thought that my male fear of death at least reflects a level of self-awareness and realism. An epidemic of female narcissism has made women delusional.

Female midlifers are confident about the future for a very good reason – they don't think death will happen to them.

At the end of their journeys, our female adventurers have learned nothing about themselves or other people. Their imperviousness to experience makes it impossible. When they do tune into the world it's like teenagers listening to a pop song. The bells in that church in Nepal, the overheard conversation at the Gare du Nord, all speak directly to their dilemmas.

Unlike Leith, Gilbert can't credit the reality of the external world. She describes Emperor Augustus's mausoleum in Rome as an extension of herself: "The Augusteum warns me not to get too attached to any obsolete ideas about who I am, what I represent, whom I belong to or what function I may once have intended to serve."

It didn't, though, did it? Feminist narratives all saw self-actualisation as a consequence of a serious engagement with the external world.

Depressingly, the narrator of Poser rather relishes her "retreat behind four walls" and "apoliticisation".

The WTO protests a couple of miles from her home seem to be "happening a world away". Her narcissistic fantasy of immortality makes her confident that this set-up will continue for all eternity. She never mentions death, or the possibility that her yoga-toned butt will sag with age.

In her mind, these atrocities are happening a "world away".