Bulletin No. 3, 1994

Table of Contents:
Director's Notes

Psychological Well-Being

Director's Notes
Faced with the challenge of describing successful midlife development, the Network turned first to the task of defining "success." Traditionally in the United States success is becoming wealthy, powerful, honored, famous. Other cultures and other times have emphasized the family, religious devotion, good works, self-sacrifice. From the many possibilities, the Network chose to study three characteristics of successful midlife development: physical health, psychological well- being, and social responsibility.

The next task was to specify what was meant by these concepts -- a task requiring a detailed description of the characteristics and the development of suitable measures of them. For one of the three, psychological well-being, studies for the past several decades have shown some puzzling relationships between age and "subjective well-being," or "self-reported happiness." Some studies show changes, some do not. But, when one disaggregates the components of psychological well-being, and develops measures of each of them, we see more clearly what takes place. As we move through midlife, we increase in some aspects of psychological well-being, while decreasing in others.
Orville Gilbert Brim
Table of Contents

Psychological Well-Being
Psychological well-being has been the subject of scientific study for a century. Most studies in the past defined "wellness" as not being sick, as an absence of anxiety, depression, or other forms of mental problems. The new conception emphasizes positive characteristics of growth and development. There are six distinct components of psychological well-being. These are:

   having a positive attitude towards oneself and one's past life(self-acceptance)

   having goals and objectives that give life meaning (purpose in life)

   being able to manage complex demands of daily life (environmental mastery)

   having a sense of continued development and self-realization (personal growth)

   possessing caring and trusting ties with others (positive relations with others)

   and being able to follow one's own convictions (autonomy).

Click on Graph to view larger image

By the use of questionnaires, these characteristics have been studied in samples of people in the early, middle, and later years of adulthood. We are interested in age differences across the adult life course. A recent major study (part of the MIDMAC research program) found that while environmental mastery and positive relations with others increase with age, both personal growth and purpose in life decline.

These facts suggest that midlife is truly "in the middle," being preceded and followed by age periods higher on some and lower on other characteristics. However, this study was done at a single time -- a cross-sectional portrait -- and the age differences may be the result of historical events. Longitudinal studies are needed to confirm whether, as the facts suggest, there are real gains and losses in psychological well-being from young adulthood through midlife to old age.

This and other studies indicate that women of all ages consistently report higher levels of positive relations with others and of personal growth than men do. These findings are important because prior mental health research repeatedly has documented a higher incident of psychological problems among women. When the positive end of psychological well-being is considered, women show unique psychological strengths.

Contrasts between midlife samples from US and South Korea show the South Koreans to have highest self-ratings for positive relations with others and lowest scores for self-acceptance. This probably expresses their more interdependent, collectivist cultural orientation. The US ratings, in turn, were particularly high on personal growth (for women) and purpose in life (foe men), with both men and women scoring lowest on autonomy. Overall, the South Koreans had markedly lower self-ratings that US respondents. Cultural variation in modes of self-presentation are likely the reason for this difference.

Social class differences in psychological well-being as also of interest. Data from the Wisconsin Longitudinal Study show a social gradient in well-being at midlife. That is, higher educational attainment and occupational status accompany greater psychological well-being, particularly self-acceptance and purpose in life. Those with higher social class standing have more positive feelings about themselves and their past lives and a greater sense of goals and direction in life, than those of lower status. In addition to these broad influences on age, gender, culture and class, other studies have looked at ways in which particular life experiences contribute to positive psychological well-being: raising children, growing up with an alcoholic parent, educational and occupational achievement in midlife, health problems and relocation experiences in old age. Collectively, these works give us a detailed look at how particular life experiences affect individuals in very different ways.

In it's current national surveys MIDMAC will continue it's study of psychological well-being, including assessment of well-being in ethnic/racial minority populations. This research will also show the connections between psychological well-being and two other criteria of midlife success: physical health and social responsibility. It will also explore the relationships between psychological well-being and experiences in work and family, and life transitions such as menopause.

(NOTE: This is adapted from "Psychological Well-Being in Adult Life," in Current Directions in Psychological Science, 1994, by Dr. Carol D. Ryff.)
Table of Contents

MIDMAC Bulletin Index

/ Guest Register / Main Page / Research / Biographies / Publications /



Modified February 2, 1999