Your life story in metaphors

A box of chocolates or a bowl of cherries; which best fits your life?

Posted May 03, 2011

If you were given a chance to choose your favorite life metaphor, what would it be?  Do you agree with Forrest Gump's mother that life is "a box of chocolates" because "you never know what you're going to get"? Or do you prefer the phrase from the 1930's tune that "life is just a bowl of cherries"?  Though simply stated, each conveys a very different view.  A "box" implies mystery, as do the pieces of chocolate inside. We don't know what is in a closed box, and we don't know what's in a covered chocolate. A "bowl" of cherries is completely in view, as is its contents. We know what those cherries will taste like and we know how many we have.  So depending on which metaphor you prefer, we could probably make a guess that you're an optimist if you like singing about a bowl of cherries and a pessimist or skeptic if you're a fan of Mrs. Gump's quote. 

Now let's get more specific. Think about how you've gotten where you are in life, and where you hope or plan to go. What metaphor comes to mind? Does your life have a shape or a direction? Is it an arrow (upward or downward), a circle, or a series of steps? How about the life of other people you know? Is the metaphor you'd apply to yourself the same as those you'd apply to other people? 

For many centuries, the metaphor of life that probably popped into most people's mind was the one suggested by Shakespeare in his speech, the Seven Ages of Man: "all of life is a stage..." On that stage, we take seven parts or roles. More recently, psychologist Erik Erikson took the idea of life as a stage to proposing that life proceeds in stages-eight, to be specific.  Erikson regarded development as a "vigorous unfolding" in which we are propelled from one stage to the next as our bodies, minds, and social roles evolve.  Erikson's wasn't the only stage theory -  Jean Piaget and Lawrence Kohlberg also wrote about stages of development-but Erikson's was the first and is by far the most famous. Chances are that if you ever took a course in psychology, whether in high school or college, you learned about Erikson's theory.

The idea that life is not just a box or bowl of chocolates or cherries, but perhaps a set of little plates is appealing. Stage metaphors fit with many of our common sense notions about change. Barring a few constancies, we change throughout life in relatively noticeable ways, both on the inside and on the outside. The problem with the stage metaphor is that it isn't particularly accurate. Erikson himself felt that his stage metaphor could be distorted, and so he emphasized the point that the stages were not etched in stone.  This is certainly implied in his use of the term "unfolding."

Simple interpretations of complex theories often win out, and this was certainly true of Erikson's theory.  Gail Sheehy took stage theory to the max when she entitled her 1975 book. "Passages: The predictable crises of adult life." The book was based (I might say loosely) on research conducted by Yale psychologist Daniel Levinson and UCLA psychiatrist Roger Gould for their respective studies of adult development.  They, in turn, each published their own books: "The Seasons of a Man's Life" (Levinson) and "Transformations: Growth and Change in Adult Life." All three of these books proposed that we systematically progress through a series of age-based stages. For example, in their 30s, men experience the stage of "Becoming One's Own Man." Of all the stages they proposed, the midlife crisis was to go on to gather the most attention. It's now part of our common parlance, but to researchers in adult development, it remains a mythical concept.

Still clinging to the butterfly image? Not ready to give up your quarter-life or midlife crisis yet? Then consider this.   None of the studies that claim to demonstrate the universality of adult life stages actually studied people as they developed over time. All of them were based on snapshots of their samples at one point in time. Adult developmental psychologists call this "bargain basement gerontology" (a term coined by Paul Costa). When you employ the "gold standard" of follow-up studies (known technically as "longitudinal" studies, you find very different results. People's actual lives don't fit into these stage metaphors. They don't automatically transform when they cross an age threshold. Instead, people's real lives (perhaps yours) are sloppy, unpredictable, and full of surprises.  Instead of imposing stages onto these vicissitudes of adult life, researchers have developed ways of capturing the influences that cause our lives to go off in one direction or another.

Another way I can put this is to point out that people aren't clocks, and our lives don't necessarily have predictability. You would never assume that because someone you know is the same age as you are that you and that person are experiencing the same changes, psychological and otherwise.

Let's put aside, then, all clock, calendar, insect stages, sets of doorways, sets of plates, and staircases.  Now, let's start fresh, and see how real people's lives actually evolve. In an earlier post, I described my 40-year longitudinal study that I wrote about in my book, "The Search for Fulfillment (Ballantine, 2010)., Today, I'd like to focus on an even longer study, an 80 year study which is the subject of a recent book by Howard Friedman and Leslie Martin called "The Longevity Project" (Penguin, 2011).  As was true for my study, Friedman and Martin were able to use data originally collected by someone else (otherwise they'd be at least 120 years old by now!). Unlike my study, though, Friedman and Martin had a very extensive amount of information on their subjects as children.  The Longevity Project sample was first tested by the famous Stanford psychologist Lewis Terman, known for his work in creating the Stanford-Binet intelligence (IQ) test. Terman set out to study the "gifted and talented" as young children. His sample, sometimes called the "Termites" continued to participate for many decades, providing a treasure trove of information about change and growth over time.

As you might imagine, it's a bit of a challenge to summarize the results of an 80-year study in a book, much less a blog posting. Even so, Dr. Melanie Greenberg, author of the Psych Today blog called "Mindful Self Express," did a remarkable job of summarizing the book, so there's no need for me to do so here . Instead, I'd like to focus on a particular part of the book toward the end that relates to my theme today.  Their final chapter summarizes the "many variations of healthy and unhealth

The paths that Friedman and Martin identify expertly capture the variations that characterize people as they age.  Some examples are "The High Road" (conscientious, planful); "Not Easy Street" (exposed to high stress throughout life), "Catastrophe Lane" (a downwardly spiraling life); "Happy Trails to You" (cheerful, sociable), "The Road to Resilience" (able to cope with stress through persistence), and "The Long and Winding Road" (an unconscientious child who becomes a conscientious adult). Though I haven't yet been able to follow my participants for 80 years, I too saw elements of these pathways among my sample-"The Meandering Way,"  "The Downward Slope," "The Authentic Road," "The Straight and Narrow Path," and "The Triumphant Trail."

It's exciting when two completely different studies, begun for different purposes, with different types of participants, and from two different theoretical perspectives come together with similar conclusions. That's what's exciting for me, anyhow. What should be exciting for you is the idea that the pathway metaphor gives you hope for changing the direction of your life if you are unhappy with it so far.  You can't stop the clock from ticking the minutes between one birthday and the next, but you can alter the road that you're on by changing yourself, your situation, or both. The pathway metaphor can inspire you in ways that passages cannot.

Keep these five ideas in mind as you think about your own life:

1.  It's valuable to assess where you are now in your health and fulfillment.  Both The Longevity Project and The Search for Fulfillment provide self-tests that can provide you with a sense of where you are now. Take those

2.  Don't give up on the possibility of change.  Life may be a bunch of chocolates, but it's up to you to keep picking out the ones you want until you are satisfied with your choices.

3.  Know how to spot good research. Before you jump onto any path toward change, make sure you are getting the best advice possible. This means relying on research that meets scientific standards.

4.  Don't let your age define you. We can all break through the boundaries of life's boxes, including and especially age. It's never too late to make positive changes in your life.

5.  Remember that there is no one "ideal" life. There may be healthier or unhealthier pathways, but no one has found the way to live the perfect life. You may have made mistakes, but there's always a chance to catch up and accomplish more than you ever believed you could.

I hope you'll take the opportunity to think about how you can get on the pathway that will maximize your chances of achieving personal fulfillment, health, and a long life. 

Follow me on Twitter @swhitbo for daily updates on psychology, health, and aging. Feel free to join my Facebook group, "Fulfillment at Any Age," to discuss today's blog, or to ask further questions about this posting. 

Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. 2011


Friedman, H. & Martin, L. (2011) The longevity project. New York: Penguin.

Gould, R. (1978). Transformations. New York: Touchstone.

Levinson, D. et al., (1978) The seasons of a man's life. New York: Alfred Knopf.

Whitbourne, S.K. (2010). The search for fulfillment. New York: Ballantine.