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Passages and Positive Psychology

written by Aren Cohen 12 November 2007

Aren Cohen, MBA, MAPP '07 is a learning specialist working with academically, motivationally and emotionally challenged students in the leading private schools in New York City. As shown in her website and blog, Strengths for Students, Aren uses the tenets of positive psychology to teach her students to use their strengths of character to change educational challenges into educational triumphs. Full bio. Aren's articles are here.

I recently started reading Gail Sheehy’s 1974 classic bestseller, Passages. The subtitle of the book, is “Predictable Crises of Adult Life.” Passages chronicles the different life stages men and women experience over the course of their adult lives.

As the author was in her 30’s when she wrote the book, she stopped the book with life in the decade of the 50’s. In her follow up book, New Passages, Sheehey (1995) creates a “New Map of Adult Life.” In this map, there are three major stages of life:

  • Provisional adulthood from 18-30
  • First adulthood from 30-45
  • Second adulthood from 45-85+

Young Adults

Young Adults

These categories are then split into decades, the tryout twenties, the turbulent thirties, the flourishing forties, the flaming fifties, the serene sixties, the sage seventies, the uninhibited eighties, the nobility of the nineties and the celebratory centenarians.

Like Sheehey, Erik Erikson (1959) conceptualized adulthood in three stages too: Young Adulthood (Intimacy vs. Isolation), Middle-Age Adulthood (Generativity vs. Stagnation) and Older Adult (Integrity vs. Despair).

So, why do I mention these life stages here? I cannot help but wonder how positive psychology impacts people in different life stages. Surely there are theories of positive psychology that hold true for all life stages, but perhaps they manifest themselves differently at different times in life. While it seems likely that Barbara Fredrickson’s Broaden and Build theory, the practice of gratitude, and the process of visioning described by Laura King hold true at all stages of life, perhaps Barry Schwartz’s theory of “Maximizers and Satisfiers” changes over stages of life development. As we get older, are we more willing to satisfice on certain decisions? As we get older, does our ability to monitor our emotional intelligence, as described by Salovey and colleagues (and highlighted in Nick Hall’s earlier PositivePsychologyNews.com article) change?

Older couple

Older couple

Perhaps the most interesting question for positive psychologists is how the search for meaning changes through the lifespan. Whether the pillars of positive psychology are the pleasant life, the engaged life and the meaningful life, or if positive relationships and accomplishment are added to the triumvirate, it is clear that how we feel about all of these things changes dramatically as we age. As positive psychologists we need to expand our understanding of the science of positive psychology to include the dimension of life stages.

As every psychologist and life coach will tell you, the issues faced by 20 year olds are very different from those faced by 60 year olds. They grapple with different kinds of questions. It is our responsibility as good scientists and practitioners to ask questions about how the psychology we are researching and creating addresses the needs of these different populations. Understanding the different kinds of positive psychology that reflect different demographics, we will be able to craft interventions to address the kind of questions that preoccupy the positive psychology of each age. This new mandate for the study of positive psychology should be researched, examined, and put into practice with care.

Perhaps if we are successful as positive psychologists in finding better ways to manage the transitions between life stages, Gail Sheehy would have to change the subtitle of her book from “Predictable Crises of Adult Life” to something more soothing like “Predictable Transitions in Adult Life.”




Emmons, R. (2007) Thanks!: How the new science of gratitude can make you happier. Boston: Houghton Mifflan Company.

Erikson, E. H. (1959). Identity and the Life Cycle. New York: International Universities Press, Inc.

Fredrickson, B. L. (1998). What good are positive emotions? Review of General Psychology, 2, 300-319.

King, L. A. (2001). The health benefits of writing about life goals. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 27, 798-807.

Salovey, P., Caruso, D., & Mayer, J. D. (2004) Emotional intelligence in practice. In P. A. Linley & S. Joseph (Eds.) Positive psychology in practice (pp. 447-463). Hoboken, NJ: J. Wiley & Sons.

Schwartz, B. (2004). The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less. New York: Ecco.

Sheehey, G. (1974). Passages: Predictable Crises of Adult Life. New York: Ballantine Books.

Sheehey, G. (1995). New Passages New York: Ballantine Books.

Younger couple courtesy of ralphbijker
Older couple courtesy of Bo Gordy-Stith

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1 comment

Angus 13 November 2007 - 7:17 pm

Well I wonder.
It is of course convenient to have life in stages but surely they are cultural constructions rather than anything else; and not sure they do less harm than good at that. Of course there are physical processess.


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