The Psychology of Balance
This article will examine a few, key aspects of middle adulthood. In particular, it will examine pessimism, optimism, and self-esteem from biosocial, cognitive, and psychosocial perspectives. Despite common misconceptions, most middle-aged adults do seem to be struggling with maintaining happiness in their lives. They do not seem to have their lives together nearly as much as they think. Hence, it is argued here there does not seem to be an age in which a person can reach a point of sustained happiness. It never happens. At any age, sustained and uninterrupted happiness is an ideal not possible to achieve.
From a biological perspective, we shall begin with a study which sought to examine positive attitudes and negative attitudes concerning health. This study seemed to be driven by the assumption that, "A positive life orientation is believed to be beneficial to health, as highly optimistic individuals appear to attract supportive social relationships, use adaptive coping strategies, and have different health habits than pessimists" (Kivimaki, Vahtera, Elovainio, Helenius, Singh-Manoux, & Pentti, 2005, p. 413). The crux of the study was to discover the influence of optimism and pessimism following a traumatic event which, in this case, was the loss of a loved one. They recorded the number of sick days individuals took after the loss. There were serious problems with this study from the start, however. For example, in regard to the observations made, "It is likely that part of the sick leaves represented voluntary absenteeism not related to physical or mental illness." Further, "some employees, although sick, tended to go to work and record no absences" (Kivimaki et al, p. 418). In other words, these psychologists may have made an error in what they chose to correlate, and what was meant to be a comprehensive study in the beginning, led nowhere. At any rate, this study did take the time to point out its own limitations, and the end result was simply, "Empirical evidence showing that high optimism or a lack of pessimism reduces the risk of health problems remains inconclusive" (Kivimaki et al, p. 413).
Next, from a cognitive perspective, the question of happiness for middle-aged adults does not change. In fact, we could explore the question further by asking, does optimism create positive events or is it created by them? Certainly, a positive outlook toward life will not prevent the loss of a loved one, but, perhaps, having a malleable predisposition-rather than either extreme-may enhance an adult's emotional and cognitive success. In light of the fact our individual environments are forever changing, this might be a better way to view this. For example, one study did find that, "happy people can remain in a positive mood as long as things are positive or neutral," and, not surprisingly, these same individuals can "experience a negative mood when things are very bad, thus motivating them to withdraw, conserve resources, or otherwise avoid harm" (Lyubomirsky, King, & Diener, 2005, p. 844). In other words, just as in adolescence, if adults want to maintain a sense of freedom and autonomy in their lives, they must be cognitively flexible and adaptive to their environment. Unfortunately, a positive outlook is not something anyone can maintain forever. Likewise, a pessimistic or negative outlook would be haphazard to maintain, as well. Our environments are subject to change. It is crucial to remain flexible to them.
Finally, if sustained optimism is not the ideal, what creates a good and malleable foundation in an adult's life? If this is what is truly needed, it may be appropriate to focus on self-esteem to understand this question. And, from a social perspective, it becomes a focus that can literally reach back into the early, formative years. Surely, middle-aged adults do not want to believe they are still impacted by events and perceptions that may have haunted them in youth. They are beyond that, right? Nonetheless, one study does clearly state, "Among adults with five or more problems during adulthood, 63% had low self-esteem during adolescence and only 15% had high self-esteem during adolescence. Similarly, among problem-free adults, 50% had high self-esteem when they were adolescents and only 16% had low self-esteem during adolescence" (Swan, Chang-Schneider, & McClarty, 2007, p. 89). Here, it seems by the time we reach adulthood we may be in a more predispositioned state of affairs than we realize. In fact, at this stage of life, we could have very little control in what we have become. If an adult has not been taught to live a fulfilling life by middle age, is there still a chance she/he can learn to do so? This sort of thinking and questioning could be taking a too deterministic view toward our development, but notice this view does stress the importance of seeing our growth and development over the entirety of a given life span: "The study of human development requires focusing on all changes of human life, from the very beginning to the very end" (Berger, 2005, p. 4). Hence, it would be haphazard for a middle-aged adult not to consider how these stages intertwine.
To conclude, 1) Professional studies made in any discipline can be way off basis. Not all ideas or methods should be accepted. I have shown this by providing an example of a study that made an error in what it chose to correlate. Point being, you may assume a positive outlook has an impact on your overall health, but assumption is not science. 2) If there is any ideal to achieve for middle-aged adults, it is not sustained optimism. It is balance and malleability. There is no age we reach in which sustained optimism or happiness is possible. Finally, 3) The study of human growth and development involves all life stages of development. It would be foolish to focus exclusively on just one, without taking into account all the rest. Our environments are forever changing. We change with them. Remember, at any age, there are no easy answers.
Berger, Kathleen S. (2005). The Developing Person Through the Lifespan (Sixth Edition). New York: Worth.
Kivimaki, Mika., Vahtera, Jussi., Elovainio, Marko., Helenius, Hans., Singh-Manoux, Archana., & Pentti, Jaana. (2005). Optimism and Pessimism as Predictors of Change in Health After Death or Onset of Severe Illness in Family. Health Psychology, 24(4), 413-421.
Lyubomirsky, Sonja., King, Laura., & Diener, Ed. (2005). The Benefits of Frequent Positive Affect: Does Happiness Lead to Success? Psychological Bulletin, 131(6), 803-855.
Swann, William B. Jr., Chang-Schneider, Christine., & McClarty, Katie. (2007). Do People's Self-Views Matter? Self-Concept and Self-Esteem in Everyday Life. American Psychologist, 62(2), 84-94.