Women show the ways to maturity

There’s no single way to achieve a well-adjusted life. However, there are at least three different but equally effective paths that lead to psychological maturity, according to a 39-year study of women who were first contacted as college seniors.

The study, in the June Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, traces psychological development in 111 graduates of a private women’s college. Participants completed questionnaires at five points between ages 21 and 60. Their psychological maturity was rated on a variety of scales. Only a handful of the woman in the study experienced serious emotional problems that blocked their development.

Some women, dubbed conservers by the researchers, successfully sought the security of marriage, family life, and traditionally female occupations. Conservers reported dealing well with daily situations and with other people, say psychologist Ravenna Helson and graduate student Sanjay Srivastava, both of the University of California, Berkeley. Conservers muted both their positive and negative feelings. They were mostly satisfied with their lives and had little desire to pursue novel challenges.

One such woman, Cathy, became a wife and mother soon after graduation. She worked outside the home when her husband experienced professional difficulties and now helps to run several volunteer groups.

A second group, called achievers, cherished social recognition and career advancement. Achievers reported a sense of mastery of everyday challenges. Over time, they underwent considerable personal growth and developed insight into their lives. They took a creative approach to fulfilling tasks at work. At the same time, achievers’ intimate relationships sometimes suffered as a result of their emphasis on professional goals.

One achiever, Andrea, went from college to graduate school to a professional career. She overcame alcohol abuse while ascending the corporate ladder. She married at age 40, when she felt she had her life under control. Andrea and her husband had no children but satisfying careers. Andrea now says she’s overcome feelings of worthlessness that began in childhood.

The third group of well-adjusted women, dubbed seekers, valued unconventional pursuits, creativity, and self-discovery. According to the researchers, seekers developed progressively more independence and wisdom in thinking about various life matters. They experienced a lot of emotional highs and lows. A desire to find or accomplish a true calling was uppermost in their minds and often outweighed concerns with daily affairs.

For example, Sarah interacted awkwardly with others but shined academically in graduate school. She dropped out and got married after unexpectedly becoming pregnant. Later, she resumed schooling and tried to become more sociable. Sarah wants to leave her current 9-to-5 job, which she finds unchallenging, so that she can write “the great American novel.”

A roughly equal number of women fell within each category of healthy development. “There are different ways to lead a good life, and each comes with its own trade-offs,” Helson remarks.

In two related studies conducted over shorter time periods, other researchers have found similar patterns of adult psychological development. One 1998 report surveyed men and women of various ages living in Detroit during the 1990s. In the other, researchers in 1972 interviewed women who attended any of four public colleges in the Midwest. The scientists followed up with additional interviews when the women were in their thirties and forties.

Other data suggest that whatever path a person takes to reach psychological maturity, this journey fosters physical as well as emotional health in old age (SN: 6/16/01, p. 373). Helson and Srivastava plan to track longevity and physical health among the conservers, achievers, and seekers they studied.

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.