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Midlife Issues: Health, Work, and Family




Excerpted from
The Search for Fulfillment: Revolutionary New Research That Reveals the Secret to Long-term Happiness
By Susan Krauss Whitbourne

An issue that assumes critical importance in midlife (if not earlier) is that of physical health. In the field of behavioral medicine, a concept that trumps all others in terms of predicting chronic disease, particularly heart disease, is the type A behavior pattern, or "type A personality," as it's often called. People who are hard-driving, competitive, pressured for time, impatient, and hostile toward others show an increased risk of hypertension and heart disease in their middle and later years.

Hostility can also pose a risk factor for the development of depression. In one study of University of North Carolina alumni led by Ilene Siegler of Duke University', people who were high on hostility in college were in midlife at higher risk for depression as well as a host of other deleterious changes in health and social functioning. If we relate this finding to the pathway notion, it would suggest that people on the Downward Slope can face significant health risks as their lives unfold while depression and anger continue to spiral.

For those on the Straight and Narrow Way, assuming they are not dealing with suppressed emotions such as resentment toward those people or conditions that keep them from changing, there may actually be some health benefits. The personality trait of conscientiousness, one that quite likely is high in these individuals, is related to better health in adulthood. In fact, the leading researcher of the type A personality, Meyer Friedman, found back in 1995 that people who were lower in conscientiousness in childhood were more likely to die at younger ages compared with people high in conscientiousness.

Later research confirmed this result and suggested that it's the control over their body weight that leads the people high in conscientiousness to live longer. The health benefits of conscientiousness continue well into late life. Costa and his colleagues studied more than one thousand Medicare recipients over a three- to five-year interval and found that self-discipline, one aspect of conscientiousness, predicted lower mortality rates from age sixty-five through one hundred.

Getting back to my Straight and Narrow participants, they may actually derive some health benefits from their sticking to a routine, although it's yet to be discovered whether their risk aversion creates other psychological problems. They may live longer, but will they feel more fulfilled? I'm reminded of researchers who study caloric restriction as a way to prolong life and who for years practice what they preach, only eventually to abandon their personal experiments when they find it's just not worth it to deny themselves life's simple pleasures. A longer life isn't all that desirable a goal if you spend that time feeling that you're trapped.

In fact, ample data from other researchers on work adjustment in the middle years of adulthood suggest that those who experience the greatest fulfillment in their careers are the ones who experiment with change and tinker in either a large or a small way to find the greatest congruence between themselves and their job conditions. Like my participants on the Authentic Road, who found a way to express their true selves in their work, those who are most successfully adjusted to their jobs in midlife have at least considered, if not acted upon, the desire to see what something else might feel like.

The topic of job change brings up a related issue pertaining to the central elements of vocational satisfaction. For many years, researchers in the area of work motivation believed in Frederick Herzberg's theory' that the key to satisfaction lay in finding intrinsic motivation-the enjoyment of the work itself. Extrinsic motivation, the focus on salary' and benefits, did not foster a deep ego involvement in one's occupation. This was a popular theory with bosses because it meant that they could pay people less, as long as they found a way to help them self-actualize. In my more cynical moments, I think that most educational and social service organizations are still based on this principle. However, the theory just didn't resonate with what the average person knows is true - that although money isn't the key to happiness, it helps in making life a lot more comfortable. So Herzberg's theory eventually faded in prominence.

Instead we now conceptualize work motivation in a more realistic way: Yes, jobs that are truly intrinsically rewarding engage our sense of identity and hence in the long run are more fulfilling than those we engage in only to earn a living. However, there are many shades between working for money and working for self-fulfillment. Edward Deci's self-determination theory, which asserts that our identities can get wrapped up in jobs even though those jobs have a strong extrinsic component, is now becoming increasingly used in the workplace. You can be a chef and really enjoy cooking and feel it expresses your true sense of self. Hut it's unlikely that you would keep this up forever if a paycheck never appeared.



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