Can Happiness Practices Get in the Way of Your Midlife Transformation? 0

I’ve been exploring the question of what best serves a person in midlife transformation.  I’m a strong proponent of both Positive Psychology and Jungian theories, but the two seem to be at odds.  The Jungian perspective would say that we need to go through a dark night of the soul – that the persona created from our childhood struggles and societal pressures needs to die so that our more authentic self can be reborn.  Positive psychology, such as described in Sonja Lyubomirsky’s The How of Happiness, shows with hard research that small daily practices can significantly increase our happiness.  Do positive psychology practices prop up our false persona, keeping us from a necessary appointment with the soul?

When we do personal growth work, we’re usually trying to solve a problem.  It’s okay to notice and want to solve problems, but if we only look for problems to solve, we’ll only see a world full of problems.  Martin Seligman, in Learned Optimism, criticizes the self-help industry for keeping people preoccupied with individualism and the self.  He posits that this preoccupation with the self, along with a decreased sense of community and a lack of higher purpose has led to increases in pessimism and depression.  In the pursuit of personal growth, we might keep looking at things to fix and miss out on what’s right with ourselves and the world.  As we focus inward, we might become disengaged with the world around us.  In contrast, noticing what’s right in the world can increase our happiness, energy, and creativity.  So if all that is true, then let’s all get on the happy train…. Oh, wait.  There’s more.

The transformation to the second half of our lives is a challenging journey – one well worth taking.  It requires grieving our old life that no longer serves us, and the anxiety of going into unknown territory.  Who are we?  Where are we going?  Some depression is expected.  To the Jungian, the journey within is a spiritual journey, and at times the journeyman dances with forces larger than the self.  We should not use positive psychology practices to prop up our false persona or to avoid this appointment with the soul.  But, we also don’t need to be overwhelmed with depression, or bogged down in always working on our stuff.  We won’t be done with the journey of life until our bodies die (and perhaps not even then), but the intensity of the midlife journey should come to some resolution.  We’re expected to emerge from the process with a renewed sense of purpose and authenticity.  To guard against the preoccupation with the self that Seligman warns about, we should keep seeing our midlife transition as a spiritual journey, and we need to stay connected to a community of nurturing support.

The practices of positive psychology do have a place in midlife transition.  Positive psychology focuses on positive subjects and practices such as resilience, meditation, physical fitness, purpose, meaning, and cognitive behavioral techniques.  As what we’ve held onto falls apart, or we begin to let it go of our old persona and beliefs, this brings up anxiety and resistance.  Practicing the skills of resilience can reduce our anxiety and make us more willing to journey into unknown territory.   A practice of meditation can also reduce anxiety and lead us into more authenticity.  Taking care of our health gives us more energy, which we’ll need as we move through this transition.  And both positive psychology and the Jungian approach value engaging life with more purpose and meaning.

What positive psychology lacks is a good way to get unstuck or to move through a transition.  Cognitive behavioral therapy, which positive psychology adopts, can help get us past some stuck places, but sometimes what’s needed is a deeper process of ritual and storytelling, and of accessing radical perspective and deep wisdom, and these are essentially Jungian techniques.

It isn’t a question of which theory is right or which tools are best.  For the midlife journey we need a big toolbox.  The right tool to use will depend on the situation, and whether it’s time to go into the dark or into the light will depend on what’s called for in the moment.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on the matter.  Please post your comments below.