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Positive psychology and mid life "crisis"


Mine hit when I was about 30.  Hopefully that’s not midlife. 

It was a glorious warm autumn evening.  I was walking back to my beautiful apartment in the W Hotel in Woolloomooloo, Sydney.  I’d just had an exhilarating swim in the Boy Charlton Pool.  The USS Nimitz , docked next to our wharf , dominated the harbour

I was a young senior manager working in corporate finance.  I owned an apartment in central London.  I was fit and strong and had an engaging social life .  I enjoyed hedonism and played hard and occasionally worked hard.  The sun was setting over the harbour bridge and the world seemed full of promise.

As I walked home I reflected at that moment that with the money in my Australian and UK accounts and the surging value of my property in Waterloo that I was the richest I had ever been.  Richer than my parents and most of my friends.  And yet I felt a deep internal poverty. 

On the news we were gearing up for another Iraq war.  The Twin towers had fallen and everywhere people seemed hell bent on pursuing material acquisition, whilst the world seemed to be falling apart.  Vacuous , shallow conversations  and drinking lattes in Pots Point only deepened my despair.

There seemed no relationship between my wellbeing and my financial wealth or my physical fitness.  No amount of gym going, acclaim at work, sex, drugs or lattes could seem to fill this emptiness..  But I kept trying.  I kept working hard.  I redoubled my gym going.  I sought sex and drugs and fine foods and wine.  All to no avail.  The more I consumed the more I felt consumed.

I was like a dog continuing to gnaw on a bone but gaining little satisfaction.  This fundamental feeling of dissatisfaction seems born out by the research in positive psychology.  This tends to indicate a diminishing utility from additional wealth ie we get to an earnings plateau where there is little subsequent increase in our wellbeing levels from extra wealth.  This is the great hedonic trap. The enjoyment we receive from a new car,  promotion, salary increase or new house is quickly discounted when we calibrate our satisfaction with life.

In western psychology there isn’t really an expression for this sense of emptiness but in the yoga sutras this feeling is called samvega.  It is the greatest of gifts, the most wonderful opportunity that we have.  In the west we treat people with these feelings as though they are depressed and need fixing but in reality this is the start of a great spiritual journey.  Characteristics of samvega include:

  • A puzzling failure of satisfaction from previous sources of enjoyment
  • A pull toward quietness and an inner world
  • A sense of feeling disorganised on the inside, not understanding who we are or what our place is
  • A lack of time abundance; feeling that there is much to do but not being quite sure what it is we need to do
  • A need to feel like an authentic person
  • A heightened search for meaning

This samvega stage in life is as normal as adolescence.  We treat teenagers differently (hopefully) because we know their brains are emerging and changing so rapidly.  And yet when it comes to samvega we call it a mid life crisis.  We send people to see psychotherapists and prescribe anti depressants to numb our feelings.

Research from the field of positive psychology suggests that our self reported happiness levels dip in mid life and then increase from there on . Perhaps this is people going through samvega.  During this stage we dismantle the ego a little; we may become less strident, more humble and more aware of the impermanent nature of  life.  We may be closer to our goals.  We may have understood the things and people that bring meaning and love into our lives.  Samvega is a glorious life stage and we need to demystify depression and emptiness.  It is a normal life stage.

Each Friday I work at a drug and alcohol detox centre teaching mindfulness.  The people at the centre have had problems with alcohol, heroin, Chrystal meth and many other drugs.  Many of the people on the program have great levels of compassion and sensitivity.  They are acutely aware of samvega.  Many of them have had a lifetime of trying to fill in a hollow core with alcohol and drugs.  They know it doesn’t work.

The following seems to work:

  • Observing samvega and treating it as a necessary and wholesome part of life
  • Accepting, understanding and being supportive of people going through the samvega stage of life
  • Encouraging people to be mindful.  This means to spend time in stillness, observing thoughts.  This observation provides us with a platform for observing self.  As we observe habitual thoughts we become aware that we are not defined by our thoughts and feelings.  Our thoughts and feelings change with the wind.  Understanding this allows us to be flexible and enables us to be present to new possibilities
  • Slowing things down. As we slow the world we become more aware of and more discerning of the choices we make.  Slowing things down means we feel less compelled to follow the crowd and chase the “likes”.  We can make choices which balance our wellbeing with the wellbeing of our community and the wider world

Our next mindfulness courses in Australia are in Sydney and Townsville www.breathe-australia.com/sessions

I hope you found this useful.  Have a wonderful Christmas and a happy new year