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1 Coupling Psychology with Self-Help Practices

Earlier this year, we read headlines that explained the United States life expectancy has dropped by a full year, likely as a result of the global pandemic and the detrimental effects it has had on society. We can understand this to the level of severity that it is when we realize that the statistic of average life expectancy dropping by 0.2 years was a big news story back in 2014 and 2015, after having years of a steady increase (Thompson, 2021). Mental, emotional, and physical health have been tested to their absolute limits, and a lot of the focus has been placed on how the children, teenagers, young adults, and the elderly are managing to make it through this time of extreme difficulty. We have to acknowledge the fact that the effects of the looming pandemic are taking a toll on people in the middle age range as well. Middle age provides a variety of challenges in itself, and a lot of individuals are at completely different stages within this age range. Some middle-aged adults might still have children at home, others may be empty-nesters waiting for grandchildren; some may be working full time for the years to come, others may be preparing for retirement. Wherever you might be in your journey through the depths of middle-age, this reading is designed to combine psychological research with useful self-help activities to help you gain back every bit of the “you” that might have gone missing over the years.

Little did we know, in March 2020, that our lives were about to be drastically changed in ways we could never even imagine. Americans continue to suffer the effects of an ongoing deadly pandemic, heated and intense political unrest, constant fluctuations in climate, all in the midst of fighting as hard as ever against social injustices that continue to devastate the people of this country. We have had our fair share of “record-breaking” events over the past year, and we are anxious, exhausted, and uncertain of what is to come next. The year 2020 was not the sole cause of the declining mental health in America. This culture is largely based on stress and it has been negatively impacting people of all ages, especially in the last decade (Chokshi, 2019). Adults in the middle-age cohort have to undergo constantly changing conditions while a looming pressure to maintain a healthy and functioning household continues to challenge these individuals. On top of it all, middle-aged adults are often caught in what is called the “sandwich” generation, having to take care of their children and their elderly parents. At the same time, many GenXers are or are preparing to be empty nesters, now having to deal with a potential loss of purpose and meaning. There is an entirely new level of adjustment being demanded of middle-aged adults once they send their children off to school or to work and watch them create a life that is independent and not needing as much from their parents as they had before.  Middle age is its own beast, so fighting the battles of middle age during a global pandemic is unprecedented, crucially warranting help for the many that are struggling to remember who they are or what to do next.

There are a number of barriers in this society that must be overcome in order to allow more accessibility to the knowledge we have gained in the field of psychology over time. The late psychologist George Miller understood that past practices of psychology have involved the idea of controlling behavior and that this can warrant anxiety and worry when it is not completely understood by the general public what the psychological aims are in these situations. However, psychologists have and continue to research and provide findings that could benefit the public more than anybody realizes. The field of psychology has made significant changes since the days of Skinner and behaviorism. A bit ahead of his time, George Miller (1969) brought us the idea of “giving psychology away” in order to promote human welfare not by creating some new fix, but by tampering with the adaptive process. Miller stated that, “. . . any broad and successful application of psychological knowledge to human problems will necessarily entail a change in our conception of ourselves and of how we live and love and work together” (1969).

More people are aware of psychology today, but there are still common misconceptions that limit the effectiveness of the discipline and all of its findings. George Miller (1969) proposes that one way to give away psychology and bring it into the realms of everyday life is by teaching psychology to non-psychologists. Understanding ways to educate more people about the benefits of psychological research and findings, combining psychology with self-help practice, and finding ways to improve the overall well-being of middle-aged adults who are struggling with purpose and self-identity are three vital tasks that could greatly improve the way individuals in America perceive themselves and their situation in an attempt to alleviate the internal struggles that can result from everyday life.

We have so many useful, scientifically-based ideas that could help so many people in all areas of life and we are depriving people by withholding the information we have in psychology to the general population. Self-help grounded in the wise intervention framework is the perfect solution to address the negative impacts of stress by reorienting life goals to regain a sense of meaning and purpose. Throughout an individual’s life, goals and motivation are constantly shifting, and the wise intervention framework for meaning-making can enable changes in personal perspectives. If you are currently experiencing major life changes, this reading and the accompanying workbook are made for you to help you re-evaluate your goals, determine the factors that motivate you, and provide useful practices to reassure your self-identity and purpose through such a challenging period of life.

Knowing that we can provide the necessary opportunities for people to improve their perception of themselves and their environment without psychological clinicians at every doorstep, we can work to provide accessibility by combining psychological knowledge with self-help practices. It is important to note that when practiced incorrectly, self-help can be damaging, and if seeking self-help to improve mental health, clinical help will be more effective in extreme cases. In the instance that self-help is not useful, it is because too often it is resulting from information rather than knowledge and simply exists as large amounts of unexamined facts as experienced by individuals rather than using accumulated data and different techniques of thinking that have been developed by many people over time (Schamel, 2020). Thus, the problem with self-help is that it has not often been combined with advances in psychological research to formulate its practices.

This would be the perfect instance to take George Miller’s advice about implementing psychological knowledge into different realms of daily life in order to provide understanding and prediction to social behaviors. Walton and Wilson (2018) describe what it would look like to use research-based evidence in psychology implementing “Wise Interventions” to change meaning-making in people’s lives to help them flourish in their self-concept, relationships with others, and social situations. Based on Walton and Wilson’s findings (2018), there is strong evidence to suggest that brief interventions targeting how people make sense of themselves or a situation can lead to long-term gains by altering people’s behavior as well as the situations they put themselves in, which reinforces more adaptive meanings to support more positive trajectories. By coupling self-help with what researchers have found in psychology with regard to goal-setting, motivation, and behavior, individuals can receive help and direction in an attempt to understand themselves, their environment, and the people around them.

More often than not, when self-help activities are provided, the younger population is the main target. Maybe this is because we tend to see the middle-older-aged populations as being set in their ways, or maybe it is because we are trying to employ ways for younger generations to have a higher quality of life. For whatever reason it may be, too often are middle-aged individuals swept under the rug and expected to be fine. There are a number of reasons why meaning and purpose are lost during middle age, and some of these reasons include slowing down, empty nest syndrome, major goals already accomplished, unrealistic goals and past regrets, as well as disease or disability (Cocarla, 2020). Life suddenly changes, whether it’s due to the last child leaving home, retirement causing the halt of a job an individual has had for years on end, or perspective changes and regrets with every year that passes, middle-age is not an easy time to endure.

Much of the attitude around middle age involves just going through the motions, which is exactly why self-help for middle-aged adults would be extremely beneficial. By reevaluating purpose, meaning, and goals, providing an opportunity for middle-aged adults to improve the quality of their life should be a priority in today’s society. In psychology, we have the necessary knowledge to be able to do so, it is just a matter of spreading awareness to society and coupling this knowledge with something as accessible as self-help ideations. It is crucial to bring attention to the difficulties of middle age and use psychological research-based evidence to implement ways of self-help throughout adulthood in order to improve the well-being of a struggling population.