Have you experienced a psychological turning point in your life? Have any of your dreams come true? Those were two of the questions asked of a national sample of Americans as part of a big interdisciplinary project tasked with charting "the psychological landscape of adulthood."
Thousands were interviewed as part of the overall project (called MIDUS, or Midlife in the U.S.). Within that big group, a random sample of 724 people, ages 28-78, were interviewed in depth about the turning points in their lives and the fulfillment of their dreams.
First, the participants were told what the researchers meant by turning points:
"Psychological turning points are major changes in the ways people feel about an important part of their lives, such as work, family, and beliefs about themselves and the world. Turning points involve people changing their feelings about how important or meaningful some aspect of life is or how much commitment they give it."
Then, with regard to the previous five years (1993 to 1998), participants were asked specifically about turning points in their job or career and turning points in which they learned something upsetting or good about themselves or a person close to them.
The question about dreams asked:
"Most people have dreams for their future...During the last 5 years, were you able to fulfill a special dream?"
Between 24 and 50% of the men and women in each age group said that at least one of their dreams had come true. (If you want to try your hand at prediction, guess now what most of those dreams were about, before you go on to read the next paragraph.)
If matrimania had its way, most of the dreams would be about marrying or partnering. But for only 8% of the women, and 2% of the men, was anything about marriage or a partner ever mentioned as a dream come true. Results for parenting were a bit stronger, with 15% of women and 10% of men mentioning that domain as the place where their dreams were fulfilled. (None of the results were presented separately for people in different marital or parental statuses.) For dreams about work, the percentages were 13 for women and 25 for men.
By far, the fulfilled dreams mentioned most often were about property (e.g., buying a new home, doing extensive renovations) and achieving financial security.
The authors also reported the domains in which the participants learned something upsetting about themselves, and the contexts in which they learned something good. Sometimes the participants named the same event as the source of both upsetting and encouraging self-insight. As with the results for dreams come true, the findings for discouraging and encouraging turning points showed that the domain of "work and career" was - with one exception -- mentioned more often than that of "marital, partner, or sexual relationships." (The authors do not mention material issues in this section except to note that what counted as a turning point in their work life more often involved an experience of growth or change than some extrinsic reward such as more pay.)
Here are the percentages of people mentioning particular psychological turning points in two of the domains:
Marital, partner, or sexual relationships
Women: 18% upsetting, 16% good
Men: 9% upsetting, 2% good
Work and career
Women: 9% upsetting, 20% good
Men: 22% upsetting, 30% good
In short, asked to name turning points in how they felt about themselves - good and bad - men always mentioned work and career more often that marital or sexual relationships. Women mentioned relationships more often only as sources of upsetting turning points.
Here's one more interesting note: Nowhere in the 27-page chapter do the authors discuss their finding that with regard to turning points and dreams come true, Americans point to their work more often than their marital or romantic relationships.
Wethington, E., Kessler, R. C., & Pixley, J. E. (2004). Turning points in adulthood. In Brim, O. G., Ryff, C. D., & Kessler, R. C. (Eds.), How healthy are we? A national study of well-being at midlife (pp. 586-613). Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.