Research Paper By Eleanor Gurney
(Executive Coach, Wellness Coach, SINGAPORE)
Midlife Pathfinder -Integrating the “8 Dimensions of Wellness” and the “Wheel of Life”
Midway upon the journey of our life / I found myself within a forest dark / For the straightforward pathway had been lost. Dante Alighieri’s -The Divine Comedy
The Term ‘Midlife Crisis’was first coined by Elliot Jaques in his paper ‘Death and the Mid-life crisis’ (1). From here, interest in this “biological inevitability” gained traction. Originally it was thought to afflict mostly white professional males “with the leisure time to ruminate on their personal development and the means to afford sports cars and mistresses” (2). Symptoms include; restlessness, boredom, indecision, feeling fenced in, promiscuity, inability to enjoy life, hypochondriacal concern over health and appearance, compulsive attempts to remain young.
Later, investigations by Gail Sheehy, articulated in her book ‘Passages: Predictable Crises of Adult Life’ (3), had this “affliction” extended to include women too. Indeed, she reflected that “Ages 37 to 42 are peak years of anxiety for practically everyone.”
Later studies have also argued the case of a ‘midlife low”. A study by Oswald et al titled ‘Longitudinal Evidence for a Midlife Nadir in Human Well-being: Results from Four Data Sets” (4) found evidence that “humans have a fundamental tendency to a midlife low which is substantial and not minor” (5).
Despite this, the ‘Midlife Crisis’ theory, as a biological inevitability, has been repeatedly challenged. Indeed, like many other common afflictions that affect well-being, it is cited as a cultural construct. Stanley Brandes, in his book ‘Forty: The Age and the Symbol’ (6), concludes that a life transition at forty is a ”collective fantasy” that is the ”combined product of . . . cultural, social, and economic circumstances.”
Furthermore, Alexandra Freund (7, 8, 9), a life-span researcher at the University of Zurich in Switzerland, says “there’s no reason to believe there are more crises in midlife compared to other times in life” conversely, she points out, life experience, that comes with age, makes it easier to cope in moments of crisis. “People are experts of themselves at this age,” Freund said. “They know what is good for them and what isn’t.”
Whether experts agree or not (to the existence of a midlife crisis or the specific terminology or specific age ranges applicable), it is clear from the amount of literature on and studies relating to (this time of life) that, around the age of forty, is a turning point for many.
Indeed Margie E Lachman, in her work ‘Development in Midlife’ (10), concluded that “the picture of midlife is still unfolding” and that there is still plenty of research to be done. Importantly, far from being a “crisis”, she also set the tone for the opportunities of midlife, concurring with Freund’s sentiments.
Experience is the teacher of all things. Julius Caesar
Many consider (especially in many nonwestern cultures) that forty is the age when wisdom begins or when rebirth takes place.
Lachman notes in her work that; “Midlife can provide a window for a glimpse of later life while there is still time to engage in prevention” and that we can make appropriate adjustments “physically, financially and socially,” For example, the first signs of chronic illness appear in middle adulthood — at a time when something can still be done about them.
“Opportunities still exist to make a difference in the quality of one’s life and that of others, or to change direction and to reap the benefits of investments in time and effort. Midlife is a period when implementing health-promoting behaviors can help to maintain health and possibly prevent physical problems in later life. It is a time when a sense of control can motivate to tackle impending declines in many domains, including health or cognitive functioning (Lachman & Firth 2004, Miller & Lachman 2000). Middle-aged adults often show high levels of mastery gained from successful coping and accumulated experiences of juggling different roles.”
It seems that “midlife” is an opportune time to stop, take stock, reflect, and move forward with intention.
Additionally, with the benefit of experience, it’s an ideal time to consider oneself from a more holistic, long-term, perspective in terms of Career, Finances, Health, Longevity, Happiness, and Life Purpose.
Putting aside the academic debate that ensues on this topic, there are plenty of popular cultural references inferring many commonalities amongst people of this age group. As a generalization then, people around this age may be:
➔ Wishing to consider a career change/progression or great work fulfillment.
➔ Aiming for a better work/life balance.
➔ Noticing that their priorities are changing.
➔ Suddenly realizing they’re not invincible
➔ Noticing that they need to manage their health (aches pain menopause medical check weight gain etc)
➔ Realizing that their children are less dependent.
➔ Starting to feel like they can put themselves as a priority again.
For many, up until now, they’ve been box-checking (something along the lines of but not necessarily with every box checked or indeed in this order):
➔ School, check,
➔ University. check,
➔ The first job, check,
➔ Career progression, check,
➔ Good time, check,
➔ Engaged, check,
➔ Marriage, check,
➔ The first house, check
➔ Children, check
➔ Children kept alive, check.
Coming to the end of this list, prompts many to feel like they don’t know where to go next; like they’ve been following a particular preconstructed path and suddenly finding that there’s a ‘fork in the road” or “an obstacle in their way” and feeling uncertainty around the best course of action.
The opportunity here then is to choose the path or master the obstacle using the wealth of experience that they have in terms of our skills, life experience, sense of self, and clarity of values.
Obstacles do not block the path, they are the path. Anon
At this time in life, there is the benefit of experience and the advantage of time.
Having this available allows people to actively manage their futures and get clarity on what their priorities are.
Life does begin at forty. Up until then, you are just doing research. Carl Jung
Combining the “Wheel of Life” with the “8 Dimensions of Wellness” As a tool in the coaching process
Reflection as a Starting Point for Action
Like every successful sportsman, business person, inventor; reflection is fundamental to success. In these roles, dissecting the details of what went well, what worked and didn’t work, what needs improving, what needs changing; helps them to create a strategy for future successes. The same is true in life; learning from our past helps us to build our future. (11)
As “midlifers”, individuals have a wealth of experience, knowledge, and skills on which to draw. They have a pretty good understanding of who they are, what they’re good at, what they’re not so great at, and what they’d like to be, etc. By taking the time to consider this can help bolster that awareness and give greater clarity on what’s important and what they want in life.
In a paper posted in the Harvard Business Review titled ‘The Existential Necessity of Midlife Change’ (12), the authors concluded that there is “no period better suited to inner growth and development than midlife, when many people learn to listen to their inner selves—the necessary first step on the journey of self-realization’
Taking a moment to stop, “get off the treadmill”, reflect on what’s working and what’s not, is the first step in creating a strategy for designing the future desired.
Furthermore, in giving oneself time to consider this properly (maybe even for the first time) individuals are often able to take a calmer, more open-minded approach and be open to shifting perspectives. In doing so he/she can find new ways of thinking, get more clarity around their thoughts and assumptions, and achieve greater confidence in terms of the direction they want to go.
The 8 Dimensions of Wellness
Increasingly people are understanding the benefit of adopting a holistic approach to health and wellbeing as a means to thrive, not just to survive.
Traditionally the term ‘wellness’ was predominantly used for Physical Health (exercise, nutrition, and the extent we can keep pain and disease-free).
A holistic approach to health and wellness has us take into account elements beyond our physical health to live well and be happy. In looking at all elements of wellness an individual can establish what’s truly important to them, what they value, and can better align their actions with those values to be the master of their ship in this journey of life.
The Eight-Dimensional Model of Wellness (13), a model used to include several areas pertinent to wellness. It details 8 mutually interdependent dimensions (physical, intellectual, emotional, social, spiritual, vocational, financial, and environmental) that are deemed pertinent to wellbeing.
By considering each element of the wheel individuals can identify which areas are most important to them and work towards finding personal harmony with the dimensions that most align with their values, goals, and ideals. Furthermore, it can help them to put actions in place to get them closer to where they want to be.
Using a tool like the Wheel of Life in conjunction with the 8 Dimensions of Wellness can help.
The Wheel of Life
The Wheel of Life (14,15) is a great tool, frequently used by coaches, to help clients identify the important areas in their lives (both personal and professional), understand where they currently are (about each area), and generate awareness in terms of how balanced and satisfied they feel and what needs to be addressed/improved.
As a foundation tool for goal setting, it can help clients to identify and plan the amount of time they wish to spend in each area of their lives based on their values, vision, and priorities at the moment.
The typical ‘Wheel of Life’ exercise has clients identify 8-10 important areas of their lives and rate their overall satisfaction against those areas (on a scale of 1-10, with 10 being very satisfied).
A blank typical wheel of life might look like this and a completed wheel like this.
Clients then can reflect on the visual representation of their overall satisfaction level in the identified areas and then, with a coach, work to create action plans to move them forward.
Typical clients (those in the “midlife” age range) frequently express their desire to engage a coach to help them work out which “direction” they should go or what “next steps” they should take; to stop, take stock, reflect, and move forward with intention.
Additionally, they tend to identify the wish for a more balanced approach to life (in terms of wellness) and are looking for a holistic approach to future-proofing themselves in terms of finances, health, happiness, and longevity.
Typical clients are keen to make the “most out of life”; to focus on what’s important to them and to take meaningful action steps to get there.
As a coach, I aim to support them by enabling them to; identify and articulate their desired goals, identify their strengths, skills, and experiences, recognize their obstacles, and devise a plan to progress towards their desired outcome.
Client X, a 45-year-old female, was invited to participate in this particular exercise after citing her frustration with the uncertainty she was feeling at this moment in her life. She felt like she had many things to consider in her life, which felt jumbled in her mind, and was uncertain what her focus should be; she felt blocked.
The client shared that she was “coming to the realization” that a new direction was required in her life; she had a sense that she needed to recalibrate. Specifically, she wanted to better understand her current mindset to be able to “re-focus and re-energize for the next phase of my life and career”.
The goal for the session was for her to “unjumble” her mind; specifically, she wanted to “pick apart” her thoughts so that she could view them with greater clarity and in a more organized way. In doing this she felt it would take her from feeling overwhelmed and uncertain to focused and energized; from anxious to calm. Finally, she hoped that, in beginning to get clarity on this, she would be able to identify 2 or 3 key areas on which she would like to focus on for further coaching sessions.
The invitation, to participate in this exercise, was delivered to use it as a starting point to draw out, clarify, and streamline her thoughts to help provide her with a focus for the remaining coaching process. Rather than using it as purely a rating tool, it was used as a framework to build off.
After being briefed on the ‘8 Dimension of Wellness’ and ‘Wheel of Life’ the client was;
1. Given a blank wheel of life template.
2. Invited to write down each element of the 8 Dimension against each section of the Wheel.
3. Asked to reflect on each segment and consider how satisfied she felt in that area of her life. The coach helped guide the client through this reflection by asking questions to help bring her thoughts forward and gain greater awareness. Questions varied per segment, and dependent on how the conversation ensued, but guideline questions included
- What comes up for you when you think about this particular area of your life?
- What feeling do you have about this area of your life?
- What’s working in this area? What goes well? What have you accomplished? Where have you been successful?
- What’s not working in this area?
- What would you like more of, in this area?
- What would you like less of, in this area?
4. Against each area, the client was asked to rate their satisfaction level on a scale of 1-10, (on a scale of 1-10, with 10 being very satisfied). Note: during the exploration into the first segment, right at the beginning of the exercise, it was noted by the client that she also wished to rate the extent to which she valued that particular area. The client recognized that having an additional measurement would be beneficial.
After completing this exercise the client had, with the completed wheel in hand, a visual representation of where she was in her life.
Having gone through this process, in detail, the client reported feeling energized and significantly clearer about her desired outcomes. The client was able to cite 3 areas that she wished to focus on in future coaching sessions and reported feeling motivated to begin her work in addressing these.
Conclusion and Learning
This exercise worked well in terms of it fulfilling its intention; as a starting point in helping my client begin to “unjumble’ her mind” to help establish a focus.
Taking the client through a methodical method, helped her to structure and organize her thoughts. As such, she was able to pick apart the “jumble’ in her mind and allow her a “clearer view”. In doing so, she was then able to better organize these areas in terms of values and priorities and get a clearer idea of what she needed to focus on to serve her going forward.
As recognized by research, the client’s age and wealth of experience made this a more robust experience. The client was able to reflect on, identify, and articulate her values, thoughts, feelings, motivations, beliefs, and desires with relative ease.
The combination of the ‘8 Dimensions of Wellness’ worked well with the ‘Wheel of Life’ as it covered the area applicable to the client and served as a means of focus. It helped the client to consider the different areas of her life in a way she might not have done so, thus allowing her to get a fuller understanding and picture of where she was at.
In the future, I would start with the use of a values tool first, as I do consider that the client’s request to rate satisfaction alongside value was helpful.
I also note that, in terms of time, with this particular client the exercise went over two sessions. This client is very detail orientated and so went through each section thoroughly. It may be that another client would be more methodical or linear in their thinking and, therefore, the exercise would be quicker. In noting this, I consider that each individual (like the coaching journey, as a whole) will experience this exercise differently. Furthermore, I foresee that its use as a “starting point” will be used as a springboard, within the coaching journey, to a greater or lesser extent, dependent on the individual.
Having the client reflect on the experience and identify areas of strength and value served well in terms of energizing the client to move forward.
Importantly, the client left the session with her goal achieved; she felt calmer as a result of picking apart and “peeling back” her thoughts and had a greater sense of focus. The client felt that the exercise was useful, in terms of it being a “starting point”, to help her move from lacking direction and feeling uncertain to feeling confident about what she needed to address.
Finally, in terms of my role as an Executive Wellness Coach (where I encourage clients to look at their health, wellness, and happiness from a holistic perspective) integrating the ‘8 Dimensions of Wellness’ with the ‘Wheel of Life’ is a relevant way of combining a wellness model with a coaching exercise.
(1) Jaques, Elliot, 1965, ‘Death and the Mid-Life Crisis’, International Journal of Psychoanalysis. XLVI, Pp. 502-514. (2) Druckerman, Pamela: How the Midlife Crisis Came to Be, May 29, 2018, The Atlantic.
(3) Sheehy, Gail, 1977, ‘Passages: Predictable Crises of Adult Life’.
(4) Cheng, Terence & Powdthavee, Nattavudh & Oswald, Andrew. (2015). Longitudinal Evidence for a Midlife Nadir in Human Well-being: Results from Four Data Sets. The Economic Journal. 127. 10.1111/ecoj.12256.
(5) David Blanchflower, Andrew Oswald The midlife low in human beings, 16 September 2017, VoxEu.org
(6) Brandes, Stanley H, 1987, ‘Forty: The Age and the Symbol’
(7) Freund, Alexandra & Ritter, Johannes, 2009, ‘Midlife Crisis: A Debate’. Gerontology. 55. 582-91. 10.1159/000227322.
(8) BBC Online, Worklife, ‘The truth behind the midlife crisis’ (viewed July 2020)
(9) Nixon, Robin, February 20, 2011, ‘The Midlife Crisis Is a Total Myth’, Livescience
(10) Lachman, Margie, 2004, ‘Development in Midlife’. Annual review of psychology. 55. 305-31. 10.1146/annual.psych.55.090902.141521
(11) Tracy Kennedy, How Self-Reflection Gives You a Happier and More Successful Life,
(12) Stranger, Carlo & Ruttenberg, Aerie: The Existential Necessity of Midlife Change, The Harvard Business Review, February 2008
(13) The Eight Dimensions of Wellness
(14) Wheel of Life, ICA Curriculum
(15) The Complete Guide to The Wheel of Life (for Coaches) July 16, 2019, The Coaching Tools Company
(16) Wheel of Life – A Self-Assessment Tool SEPTEMBER 16, 2013 BY BRENDAN BAKER, Start of Happiness