Psychological Maturity and Happiness

In this interview, Andres Fossas, who leads Perspectiva’s Human Growth Project, tells Caspar Henderson about the thinking, methods and findings of his new paper Psychological Maturity Predicts Different Forms of Happiness.

What inspired you to undertake this research?

In the first place it was my discovery of the fascinating field of psychological maturity and ego development, which suggests that humans have a capacity to continue maturing psychologically throughout adulthood, but that few of us actually do. Most of us stay around the mid-range of maturity for most of our lives. So the key question for me in deciding to begin this study was “is it good to continue maturing?” In other words, why would I, as an adult, want to continue maturing? Why not simply be content with a mid-level of maturity for all of one’s life?

I figured that, maybe, development to greater levels of maturity might make one happier in the long-run. After all, great philosophers and spiritual leaders from the past have suggested this, that true happiness lies at the end of a long journey of inner development.

Later, I found that previous research into this question had produced mixed results. Some studies did find a link between greater maturity and greater happiness, but many studies didn’t. That gave me enough justification to begin designing the study we are discussing now.

You used the Subject-Object Theory of the psychologist Robert Kegan as a metric for maturity. Please tell us something about that.

Kegan developed Subject-Object Theory, or SOT, in the early eighties and introduced it in his book The Evolving Self. The theory itself is a complex and powerfully explanatory account of what it means to be human. The central idea is that the self evolves throughout the lifespan in a predictable way. (As a brief aside, the self here is defined as the human meaning-making system within each of us. It is that essential part of us that determines what things mean to us and what our relationship to everything is, including to ourselves).

Imagine a tiny or invisible psychic administrator hard at work and deep within you, constantly deciding what all the incoming stimuli mean, how much they matter, and what you—the whole organism—should do about it. You are not aware of its influence, but it determines the way you experience the world and the way you respond to it. That’s essentially what we refer to as the self, the mind, the ego, or consciousness. It sits in a hypothetical space behind or prior to thinking and feeling, if that makes sense.  And the evolution or growth of this system is what Kegan captures in SOT and what I refer to in the study as psychological maturity. It is also, I believe, what the Buddha seems to be referring to by citta-bhavana, what Socrates seems to mean by the perfection of the soul, and what Nietzsche seems to be getting at with his metamorphoses of the spirit. All of these instances describe how core grasp or perception of reality can develop over time.

In Subject-Object Theory, Kegan theorises that the growth of the self happens across the lifespan in a series of six stages, 0 to 5, each increasingly more sophisticated and complex than the last. And while we can say that a particular person may be seeing the world from a stage 3 or stage 4 position, for instance, the reality is that most people are found to be in transition between two stages. The majority of adults, for example, fall between stages 3 and 4, which we refer to as being in transition from the ‘socialised mind’ to the ‘self-authoring mind.’ This suggests that most adults do not make sense of the world from a full stage 4 position or beyond. For me, this raises the question of why: why do most adults not develop more complex capacities of meaning-making? Or to put it differently, why are there so few highly mature people out there?

So what did you do for the research that led to the paper?

Initially, the aim was to see how people at different stages of maturity scored themselves on various happiness/wellbeing questionnaires. This would help address the initial research question as to whether more mature people are happier. But several conversations with Robert Kegan at Harvard later led to the addition of a qualitative element to the study — that is, an open-ended question to explore how people understand and/or interpret happiness. We hypothesised that rather than only the quantity of happiness going up or down as a person matured, the form or type of happiness might also change as one moved through the stages of maturity. The qualitative element was intended to capture that possibility.

The final design consisted of the three parts: a Subject-Object interview to assess psychological maturity; online surveys of hedonic (pleasure-seeking) and eudaimonic (rightful action-driven) forms of wellbeing to assess quantity of happiness; and open-ended questions with follow-up probing at the end of each interview to assess the kind/form of happiness.

In the end, a total of 35 adults ranging from 20 to 72 years old took part in the study. I recruited these individuals non-randomly to increase the likelihood that low, mid, and high stages of maturity would be represented. This ‘non-random’ approach involved me inviting participants according to their age on the assumption that younger adults (that is, those aged 18 to 30) were more likely to score closer to stage 3 and older adults (aged 30 to 60) were more likely to score closer to stage 4. Recruitment of potential stage 5 participants was tricky, as very few adults — only about one percent — are identified in this upper range. To find them, I enlisted the help of researchers who had identified highly mature individuals in previous studies. I recruited some of these individuals and asked them to help me locate others who they suspected might also be operating at an advanced stage of maturity (an approach known as ‘snowball sampling’).

What would you particularly like people to understand about your findings?

The first takeaway is that most adults are far from being fully mature, which seems to be true for most models of psychological maturity. In fact, almost all of us fall at or near the mid-range of the maturity continuum. In other words, the notion that most or all of us are fully developed simply doesn’t hold.

The second takeaway is that the kind of relationship many adults have with their own happiness— viewing it as an special feeling that we have control over and should strive to maximise—might actually be a phase that adults go through and eventually grow out of. It might even share parallels with the phenomenon of ‘teenage angst,’ as that too describes a particular way of relating to experience that emerges and then fades as one matures.

The third takeaway is more relevant to positive psychologists and wellbeing researchers. My study suggests that happiness might change form, and not merely quantity, as one matures. In turn, this would mean that the most common ways we have for measuring wellbeing, or happiness, may be assuming that it is experienced similarly by all, thus generating invalid results for large groups of participants. Robert McCrae and Paul Costa, two researchers who previously explored this research question, have remarked that “such a finding would threaten the construct validity of measures of well-being because the meaning of our measures of happiness differs as one goes from individuals at one end of the continuum [of maturity] to the other.”

Finally, let me offer a caveat. This is an exploratory study. Its results must be interpreted with caution. That said, I do not believe this diminishes the importance of the questions and possibilities it raises.

The featured image, Rembrandt van Rijn’s Self-Portrait with Beret and Turned Up Collar (1659), is in the public domain. Source: Wikimedia Commons

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