It’s common to get bogged down at certain life stages. Hence labels like “quarter-life crisis” and “empty nest syndrome.” How to get unstuck.
By Stephanie Stephens
As unique as each of our journeys is, we share a common human condition. Which is to say that if you find yourself struggling emotionally at certain life stages, you’re not alone. Shorthand tags like “quarter-life crisis” and “empty nest syndrome” gain traction because they ping with enough people’s experiences to make sense.
It’s far from a personal failing to feel lost or bogged down at milestones that beg the question, “What’s next?” Getting unstuck, however, requires a very personal solution: Carefully calibrating goals based on what you find truly meaningful.
Finding your feet
Back in 2001, journalist Alexandra Robbins—then a twentysomething herself—got together with a friend and wrote Quarterlife Crisis: The Unique Challenges of Life in Your Twenties. Relying on anecdotal evidence, the pair put together a convincing description of recent college graduates struggling to find their feet as independent adults.
At the leading edge of the so-called Millennial Generation, Robbins and co-author Abby Wilner tapped into a phenomenon that resonated with enough post-grads that it became a cultural meme: Young men or women in their 20s, adrift in their relationships, unemployed or underemployed, and unsure of what to do next (think Lena Dunham’s HBO series Girls).
Miami psychologist Erika Martinez, PsyD, a millennial herself, says it’s easy to feel “stuck and stranded” at this point in life.
Finally ejected from the structure of formal schooling, individuals may struggle to find satisfying work or begin to realize the career they studied for isn’t what they really want to do. Entry-level wages and the high cost of housing often add up to shared apartments or even moving back home, while student loans siphon off income that might otherwise go toward a down payment on a house of one’s own, Martinez notes.
Kyle F., 27, recalls having trouble finding his feet.
“I’ve felt like I wasn’t being good or ‘adult’ enough,” says Kyle, a music therapist in Illinois. “My friends were getting married, having kids, buying houses, or getting masters degrees or PhDs. I felt out of place, that I wasn’t doing something right.
“Plus, I had to learn to cook food and fold a fitted sheet.”
To be fair, researchers have found little scholarly evidence for the quarter-life crisis. As recently as 2015, psychologists using data from two Canadian samples—a group of high school seniors followed from ages 17 to 43 and a group of college seniors followed from ages 23 to 37—reported that happiness follows an upward trajectory after the teen years.
A 2011 study that looked at college students, graduate students, and young adults in the workforce likewise debunked the idea of a quarter-life crisis, but also concluded that life satisfaction was contingent on financial stability, social support from friends and family, and having a strong sense of who you are.
Martinez has some advice on developing a strong sense of self. She says finding your way forward involves figuring out “what motivates you, inspires you and makes you curious”—what she calls “your why in life.” Identifying those core values establishes a framework for the choices you make about where to put your attention and energy.
The next step is envisioning what you want your life to look like in three to five years—putting together a realistic plan that takes into account the seven dimensions of wellness: physical, emotional, intellectual, social, spiritual, environmental, and occupational.
Next, she says, “Identify one to two goals for each facet, achievable in the next year. Then break these down into actionable projects for each quarter of the year, and then into tasks for each month.
Kyle came up with a plan to establish a social circle in his new town. It was another new frontier of independence, he says, because “in college, friends were right there in classes.”
He found people with similar interests by joining local Meetup groups—one devoted to creative writing, one for young professionals looking to network, one for fans of stand-up comedy, and one for people in his age group who plan social activities together.
After three years in town, and many months into an established relationship, he’s more confident he knows the lay of the land.
“I don’t have a grasp on everything, but I’ve come so far since ‘back then,'” he says. “I admit I’m still adjusting to some ‘adulthood’ things even now.”
Like “middle class,” “middle age” tends to be a fuzzy term. There’s no real timetable to the proverbial midlife crisis—a point at which you begin to wonder, “Is this all there is?” And whether it happens at 40 or 50 or some other significant birthday, it’s common to feel like you’re on the down slope of life.
Naturally, not everyone will fit that pattern. Still, midlife often is a point at which your family is largely raised and your worklife has settled into a groove and you’re thinking about “something more,” says Rodney A. Villanueva, MD, a psychiatrist with Carolinas Healthcare System in Charlotte, North Carolina. Something “that contributes to not just existing, but being productive and giving something back to society.”
For some, the existential questions of midlife coincide with a more concrete life change: the equally proverbial empty nest.
Experts like clinical psychologist Emanuel Maidenberg, PhD, an expert in stress and anxiety and director of the Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Clinic at the University of California-Los Angeles, emphasize that feelings of loneliness, loss and sadness when young adults leave home shouldn’t be discounted. While not a clinical diagnosis, “empty nest syndrome” can have a real impact on well-being—an “emotional event” that merits acknowledgement at the very least and treatment if needed.
Whether you’re facing an empty nest, a midlife crisis or both, the advice is similar: Seize the opportunity to resurrect pursuits that have languished or pursue new interests. Taking on new challenges—enrolling in a class, volunteering, mentoring—or asking for extra responsibilities at work can keep you engaged and excited.
“Whatever it is, identify that thing you feel passionate about and make that the platform for your contribution,” Villanueva says.
Roberta K. had to reinvent her life just as her two daughters were reaching “launch” age. Over the span of several years, she went through a divorce, saw one child off to college and the other off to New York City, and incurred a shoulder injury that ended her career as an obstetrician/gynecologist.
Roberta flew the coop as well. She moved cross-country, from Connecticut to New Mexico, with two suitcases and a resolution to approach her emotional and physical health in new ways.
“The universe gave me what I could not give myself: an escape, and chance to pause and reevaluate,” says Roberta, who is now CEO of a personalized medicine company. “In healing myself, and giving myself permission to grow, I have gained so much more.”
Roberta hopes her journey to reinvent herself in middle age will set a good example for her daughters and teach them “how to live from their heart and soul, and that it’s never too late to change course.”
The third act
Just as twentysomethings may feel adrift after leaving school and parents behind, people of retirement age can be thrown by the loss of purpose, structure and socializing that work provides.
Off-the-job social networks may go into flux during these years as well, as peers move away to a better climate or to be closer to family. And all those “What are we here for?” questions may loom ever larger as the birthdays accumulate.
Bob L. recalls how things changed after he retired.
“I had to adjust to the reality of 24 hours a day that was now my responsibility,” explains Bob, who lives in Arizona. “I had few interests or hobbies outside of my work, so I was lost for a while. After a necessary period of decompression, I realized I needed some basic structure to my day and goals to work toward. That realization made all the difference.”
Dilip V. Jeste, MD, senior associate dean for healthy aging and senior care at the University of California-San Diego, notes that a job provides a ready-made purpose for many people—”but it cannot be the purpose for one’s entire life. You now have an opportunity to find or develop a new meaning to your life.”
Studies have shown that having a purpose in life is associated with better mental and physical health and well-being, and perhaps even greater longevity, he says.
For example, in August researchers from Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health reported that older adults with a sense of purpose in life maintained higher results on a test of walking speed, a standard measure of physical decline in aging.
Prior studies have linked having a stronger sense of direction and meaning to lower risk for cognitive impairment, heart attack or stroke, and other infirmities, as well as to greater resilience against negative stimuli.
Acquiring that stronger sense of direction may require some tweaking of your “why” in life.
“Life goals have to be adjusted as we move through life,” explains Leah Weiss, PhD, MSW, a professor at the Stanford Graduate School of Business and a proponent of mindfulness and purpose in the workplace. “You probably do not want the same things now that you wanted when you were 16.”
Although there may be a bumpy adjustment period, the long-term prospects for this stage in life look good. A project called the Successful AGing Evaluation (SAGE) showed that a variety of self-reported mental health measures—life satisfaction, happiness, stress, depression and anxiety— improved across the late-life decades, even as physical health deteriorated.
Psychologist Ken Dychtwald, PhD, founder of the Age Wave marketing firm and a well-respected expert on aging, writes that it’s not unusual to feel “unsettled, anxious, and even bored” once your identity and schedule are no longer defined by work. The good news: After a period of transition and self-discovery, anxiety wanes, contentment grows, and “emotional well-being actually peaks” in this life stage.
Financial security influences well-being, but UCSD’s Jeste says “more money doesn’t necessarily bring more happiness” in retirement. Oftentimes, “it is a question of how you cope with your stresses.”
A 2011 study done in Croatia pointed to other variables. A sense of humor, having children, and living in a retirement community were the strongest predictors of feeling satisfied with life among elderly retirees—perhaps because loneliness was linked to lower life satisfaction.
It’s important not to allow yourself to get isolated, says Romilla Batra, MD, chief medical officer for the SCAN senior health plan in California. That means making an effort to maintain connections and spend time with others.
“Volunteer for a local nonprofit, go on walks with friends to boost physical activity, or participate in senior community activities to stay engaged with others and meet new people,” she says.
The trick is to embrace the “endless possibilities of it all,” in Bob’s words.
“As a retired person, I have the freedom to build my life any way I choose. Sure, I continue to have responsibilities to a spouse, family and financial matters. But how I structure the unfolding of my life for the next few decades is mine to decide.”
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Ages and Stages Named
Academics who study generational cohorts (a fancy way of saying people in a specified age group) disagree on their definitions, but the Pew Research Center frames Millennials as those born between 1981 and 1997—or anyone ages 20 to 36.
Those at the cusp of Generation X, now reaching their early 50s, have arrived at what’s traditionally considered middle age. However, the authors of a 2015 study in the journal PLOS ONE argued that longer life expectancies are pushing “old age” off by a decade or more, which establishes 60 as the new “middle age”—a designation that then includes many Baby Boomers, a group that Pew brackets from 53 to 71 years old.
The Boomers were preceded by the so-called Silent Generation. This cohort of people born during the Great Depression and World War II are solidly in their post-retirement golden years.
Printed as “Finding a Way Forward Through Life Stages”, Fall 2017
via Esperanza – Hope To Cope
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