THE BLOG
01/03/2013 09:13 pm ET | Updated Mar 05, 2013

Quelling the Quarter Life Crisis With Psychology and Economics

Many young adults today find themselves facing a crisis of direction in their lives and identify this experience as a 'quarter life crisis.' Critics however suggest that this is nothing more than common life angst, heighted by the echo chambers of a hyper-connected culture. Regardless of the debate around the breadth and depth of the so-called "quarter life crisis," there are clear indicators that point not only to a definitive phenomena of anxiety experienced by young adults over their personal and career life trajectories but also data that suggests that this experience is increasingly common.

Psychologist Martin Seligman and his colleagues observe a paradoxical rise in depression in our country over the last 50 years despite the increasing per capita income, education, longevity and general ease of life. David Myers, also a psychologist, notes that between the 1960s and 1990s, measures of societal health decline (divorce rates, suicide rates, violent crime rates) have all increased by at least two times. And the sociologist Robert Putnam points out that for younger generations of Americans since the mid-20th century, a worsening trend is occurring in terms of "headaches, indigestion, sleeplessness, as well as general satisfaction with life."

The degree to which anxiety and uncertainly afflict young adults does appear to be staggering. Cross sectional surveys point to a significant share of young adults identifying themselves in a crisis period with overwhelming fears and pressures related to careers, family, relationships and finances.

But while humans have pondered the question of direction and life satisfaction since Aristotle's quest to define the good life, behavioral economists and positive psychologists today are offering up clues that serve as guideposts. Their research, mostly correlational, can help quell the quarter life crisis by identifying the conditions that are closely linked to happiness, i.e. 'subjective well-being' in the language of positive psychologists.

So what drives the quarter life crisis? One fundamental and nagging question is: "What should I do with my life?" The answer differs for everyone and can remain elusive, but lessons from psychology and economics bear insight that can help individuals arrive at meaningful and lasting direction.

The quarter life crisis can partially be attributed to what psychologist Barry Schwartz has extensively researched: a paradox of choice. The paradox is that in an age where we are presented with many more options than previous generations (from consumer goods to geographic residence to life partners to career choices), this array of possibilities leaves many people unable to make a lasting and satisfying choice. Similarly, other researchers have identified a threshold wherein 'decision fatigue' emerges: a point in a series of choices when one's energy and enthusiasm for comprehensively evaluating tradeoffs declines precipitously. Put simply: we get tired of making decisions.

Schwartz, however, offers suggestions for how individuals can work past the paradox of choice, such as being smart about when and how to make decisions, focusing less on making the perfect (or the maximized) choice, and making decisions non-reversible to negate regret. His book, The Paradox of Choice is a useful place to start in learning about improved decision-making.

Other psychologists are focused on understanding the drivers and effects of subjective well-being. Their analysis provides useful guideposts for young adults as we navigate through major decisions in our lives. So what are some key factors linked to happiness?

For starters, income and wealth play a role in subjective well-being, but the relationship has limits. Psychologists are finding that ever increasing wealth is not linked to ever increasing happiness. Income is necessary for fulfilling basic needs such as food, shelter and health care, and well-being is highly linked to satisfying those needs. But beyond a certain limit (different studies identify that threshold in a range between US$20,000 to US$75,000), the correlation between income and well-being breaks down. Similarly, the comparison between average per capita income and average well-being between countries is not so clear: there is much debate over the observation that happiness levels do not differ much between countries above the threshold that can satisfy basic needs.

Time series studies in high-income countries, such as the United States, over long periods of time illustrate that while per capita incomes have steadily increased, average well-being has stagnated. So beyond minimum thresholds to satisfy basic needs, the link between income and happiness is tenuous. This link seems underemphasized in the education of young people today. In fact, the polar opposite has taken hold, as seen in psychologist David Myers' research of 200,000 incoming college students from 1966 to 2010. The percentage of these students that rate a life of "being very well-off financially" as very important or essential has increased from around 40 percent to nearly 80 percent, while the trend for "developing a meaningful life philosophy" has moved in the opposite direction, from above 80 percent of collegians identifying it as a very important goal in 1966 to less than 50 percent today.

So if money can't buy happiness, then what are strong correlates of happiness? One answer: relationships and connectedness. The clearest link to happiness, particularly into older age, is the extent that individuals feel connected to their friends and family. The cultivation of one's social network not only provides positive mental benefits during the good times in one's life when people are sharing laughter, experiences and happy milestones, but are also critical during the darkest moments, when friendship and family help provide emotional and mental support through hardships and buffer against loneliness and despair. The cultivation of social networks incorporates persistent nurturing of positive emotions, empathy, trust and gratitude, all which play a part in increasing subjective well-being.

The decision to choose a career path results in much uncertainty and anxiety for those who face a quarter life crisis and is fraught with the complications that Schwartz identifies in the paradox of choice. However, psychologists such as Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi demonstrate that there are activities where one's concentration is so focused that the concept of passing time fades into the background. This is "flow," and for most of us there are activities that help us find these moments. It may be the case though that one's current employment and the activities that bring them into "flow" do not overlap, but our lives can still be enriched by finding time to cultivate those moments.

Psychologists have also found that considering work either as a job, career or a calling can also impact well-being. In various different job functions, there are people who are still able to view their role (no matter how tedious) as a calling and part of a larger mission; either to help others or simply to help society by getting a necessary job done, no matter how unglamorous. Conversely, economists and psychologists point out that unemployment has a significant deleterious effect on individual happiness.

Other correlates (and some studies that demonstrate causation), link voluntary actions and activities to increases in subjective well-being. These include activities such as regular exercise, meditation and practicing certain attributes (such as gratitude, positive remembrances, kindness). Environmental conditions also appear to impact well-being: stressful living environments and daily long distance commutes are inversely correlated with positive well-being.

One immutable aspect of well-being that can help to understand one's own propensity to be positive or otherwise, is the role of genetics. Psychologists believe in a genetic set point that pre-determines the initial range of positive and negative emotions that individuals feel on a daily basis. While the set point may be pre-determined, there is much research examining how to adjust that level (including applying the topics covered above). The role of adaption and the concept of a hedonic treadmill are also key issues to understand in the quest to achieve well-being. The former is the natural inclination to adapt to higher or lower levels of well-being, and the latter is the fact that as things make you happy, the more things you'll need to maintain that happiness level.
 
In the end, understanding the drivers and the roadblocks to happiness can lead one to the clarity and direction needed to quell the quarter life crisis. While some may say that dwelling on one's own quarter life crisis is self-serving and narcissistic, psychologists and economists are pointing out that there are significant positive effects of higher subjective well-being. These include greater engagement and service to one's community, higher degrees of education attainment, higher performance in work and higher entrepreneurship.

Lessons from psychology and economics are helping to shed a light on the determinants and correlates to higher subject well-being, and these results can serve as guideposts for people confronting their own quarter life crisis. And quelling the crisis is the first step that then leads to the positive effects of greater happiness.

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