Are you navigating a midlife crisis? Perhaps you find yourself right in the midst of it, or maybe it’s creeping up on you unnoticed. You might be experiencing a profound sense of emptiness and disorientation. Maybe the things that used to matter greatly to you now seem irrelevant. You could be questioning your identity, wondering where this emptiness or confusion came from. How can you fill this void and find fulfillment again?

A book cover illustration for Midlife: A Philosophical Guide” by Kieran Setiya, a philosophy professor at MIT, offers intriguing insights. Facing his own midlife crisis, Setiya turned to philosophy for answers.

In this post, we’ll explore how his key insights can help understand the causes of midlife emptiness and provide practical ways to navigate it.


Understanding the Crisis: The Root of Emptiness

In his book, Setiya suggests that our goal-centric life approach can be self-destructive. We chase milestones and goals – from career achievements to personal objectives like marriage or homeownership, down to daily tasks. Our lives become a series of “projects,” and in striving to complete them, we unknowingly drain our lives of meaning.

By midlife, we’ve achieved many goals, ironically leaving our lives empty of the “projects” that once filled them.

We sense something is missing but can’t pinpoint what it is. Some change jobs or end relationships, mistakenly believing these are the sources of discontent. Others create bucket lists, throwing themselves into new pursuits. But if our relentless goal-chasing is the problem, continuing in the same vein is unlikely to be the solution. So, what can fill the void?


The Paradox: Achievement Equals Emptiness

A pivotal concept in Setiya’s book is the distinction between telic and atelic activities. This concept helps explain why focusing solely on achievements can lead to emptiness, particularly during midlife.


Telic: The End-Goal Oriented

The term “telic” is derived from the Greek word “telos,” meaning “end” or “purpose.” Telic activities have clear goals or endpoints. In these activities, your focus is on achieving a specific outcome.

For example, obtaining a degree, getting a promotion, running a race, or completing a project. The satisfaction in these activities often comes at the moment of completion. However, this also means their sense of purpose is fleeting. Once the goal is reached, the activity loses its appeal and fades from our lives.


Atelic: The Endless Journey

Atelic activities contrast with telic ones. They don’t have a final goal or endpoint. These activities are ongoing, with the journey itself as the purpose.

Examples include walking for pleasure or painting for the joy of creation. Spending time with loved ones without an agenda is another example. Atelic activities provide lasting fulfillment. Their value lies in the experience, not in reaching a goal.


A Societal Trap: The Goal-Driven Hamster Wheel

Our society fosters a goal-oriented mindset. We are often required to set annual goals and strive diligently to meet them. In casual conversations, it’s common to be asked, “What’s your goal for this year?” As a result, we find ourselves in a constant chase for the next achievement, driven by internal pressures and external expectations. While setting and achieving goals is beneficial, an excessive focus on them can lead to burnout or even a midlife crisis.


Finding Balance: Telic and Atelic Activities in Harmony

Setiya emphasizes the importance of atelic activities in alleviating the emptiness often experienced in a goal-focused life.

However, he doesn’t suggest abandoning all telic activities. It’s neither realistic nor necessary to spend all day wandering in the woods. Instead, he recommends finding a balance by recognizing the atelic aspects within the telic activities.

Take reading, for example. Approached as a telic activity, it might involve setting a target to finish a certain number of books or meeting a book club deadline. The focus here is on reaching completion.

On the other hand, atelic reading involves immersing yourself in the narrative. It’s about savoring the language and enjoying the journey through the story. The pleasure comes not from finishing the book but from the reading experience itself.

By focusing on the atelic aspects of activities, you learn to appreciate the process. This approach encourages you to value the experience for its own sake, leading to greater fulfillment.

In most telic activities, you can find an atelic counterpart. This means you don’t necessarily need to change the activities you engage in; instead, shift your attitude toward them. Look for joy in the journey, not just in the achievement of the destination.


Meditation as a Tool for Mindfulness in Embracing Atelic Activities

Atelic activities inherently lack a specific end goal. Their worth is found in the experience itself. To fully enjoy these moments, being mentally and emotionally present is crucial. This applies whether you’re on a leisurely walk, involved in creative arts, or deeply engaged in conversation.

Yet, for many, full presence is a challenge. Have you caught yourself—or your conversation partner—checking a phone mid-conversation? It’s a common sign that the art of being fully present is becoming rare.

Recognizing the atelic aspect of an activity is the first step; truly being in the moment and enjoying it is another. How, then, can you immerse yourself in atelic activities?

Setiya points to meditation as a fundamental tool for this shift. If you’re thinking, “Not meditation again,” bear with me. Meditation is more than a practice—it’s training in presence. Focusing on your breath, body sensations, or environmental sounds hones your ability to live in the now. This skill is vital for appreciating atelic activities.

Consistent meditation practice deepens this skill, guiding your focus away from outcomes and towards enjoying experiences. This mindfulness uncovers joy in the journey, not just the destination, and enriches how you interact with life’s many facets.

For those looking to start on a path to mindfulness, Setiya recommends exploring the guided meditations provided by the UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center. They offer an accessible entry point into the practice, helping you cultivate presence and enrich your engagement with atelic activities.


Embracing the Journey for a Richer Life

If you’ve been relentlessly working on one “project” after another throughout your life, you might encounter a sense of emptiness. This often surfaces in midlife after achieving multiple goals.

Filling this void doesn’t always require drastic changes. The key is a shift in focus. Instead of solely aiming to complete an activity or meet a goal, try to be mindful during the activity. Focus on being present in the moment and savoring the process itself.

This shift can be challenging, but meditation can serve as a helpful tool to ease the transition. It trains you to enjoy the process and be present, not just focused on the outcome. Let’s embrace and enjoy the journey, not just the destination!