“Karl Pillemer of Cornell makes the distinction between ‘happy in spite of’ and ‘happy if only,’ the former being a benefit of old age, the latter a vexation of youth. ‘Happy in spite of’ entails a choice to be happy; it acknowledges problems but doesn’t put them in the way of contentment. ‘Happy if only’ pins happiness on outside circumstances . . ..” –John Leland
After reading these words in Happiness Is a Choice You Make: Lessons from a Year Among the Oldest Olda couple weeks ago, I went for a pre-dawn walk in a high wind warning. As the crosswind threatened to push me sideways, and the headwind occasionally stopped me in my tracks, I thought about this idea of being “happy in spite of” vs. “happy if only.” It brought two concepts, to mind.
The first is the JustWind mindset, inspired, of course, by the Kansas wind. The JustWind mindset asserts that we have the power and freedom to choose our perspectives, and that is really what Pillemer’s distinction is—a recognition of the “wind” that presents as challenges in our lives and the decision that we are not victims of circumstance.
The second was the Serenity Prayer, which teaches the wisdom of releasing the illusion of control where there truly cannot be any and accepting responsibility where we do have the ability to change our conditions.
“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference.”
Happiness is a Choice You Make felt almost like a sequel to the book I highlighted last week, The Happiness Curve: Why Life Gets Better After 50, although it was published about four months earlier, and by a different author, than The Happiness Curve. Much of the same research was mentioned, and the age group that Leland featured was a generation or two beyond that examined by Rauch. Leland followed a group of 85-year-old+ seniors for one year and shared stories of his conversations with them that were poignant and instructive. What really struck me was the wisdom these older adults had gleaned. Most were generally content, even happy, despite quality of life that most of us would find very disagreeable.
The “happy in spite of” vs. “happy if only” distinction was the most significant idea in the book for me. The seniors who made the choice to be “happy in spite of” recognized that life had problems and was not perfect. Maybe their conditions were not what they would choose, but they decided to control what they could and made a conscious decision to be happy in spite of life’s imperfection.
No matter our current season of life, odds are we can find flaws in it. There are things we wish were different—some small, others larger.
I think our responsibility lies in recognizing when there is something we can change and when we cannot change our circumstances. Just because we CAN change a situation that is less than desirable, doesn’t mean it is easy. Doing so requires the courage mentioned in the Serenity Prayer. Part of the reason it calls for courage is that creating change comes with no guarantees. Making the decision to pursue change may come down to the choice I discussed in this post—that the risk to remain tight inside the bud of our comfort zone is more painful than the risk it takes to blossom.
Legitimately, sometimes we may decide that the risk of blossoming is greater or that we actually have no control over a situation. That leaves us with one choice.
We can choose to wallow in our misery, or we can choose to be happy in spite of our circumstances.
That is both wisdom and power. Since we can’t control the situation itself, we are controlling our response to it, rather than allowing it to dictate our quality of life.
Living in a pandemic, there are many things we would like to change but can’t. We always have control over what perspective we choose, though, and we can make the decision to be happy in spite of the things we can’t make go away.
That is a very freeing thought. No one and nothing outside of us determines how we respond to what life gives us. We do.
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I like to think I am pretty good with words—at least on paper, if not always while speaking on the spot (a common characteristic of introverts). But, for the past several years, I had not been able to find a label that I felt accurately described the sense of internal unrest that that been nagging me. Sure, there are aspects of my life that I would like to be different, and I am actively working to improve some of them, but it was more pervasive, if subtler, than that. I felt guilty for my unsettledness. There was no good reason. What was the deal?
Just after the first of the year, I read Jonathan Rauch’s The Happiness Curve: Why Life Gets Better After 50, and I felt like he was reading my mind. So often throughout the book, I found myself saying, “Yes!” or “That’s exactly how I feel.” And he gave me a new vocabulary for identifying and explaining—even if only to myself—this underlying nag of discontent.
Rauch found himself feeling the same way in his 40s. He was a successful journalist who was in a loving relationship. Outwardly, he had achieved so much of what he wanted to accomplish, and life looked good. Overall, it felt good, too. He appreciated what he had. That was why he felt so bad about feeling bad.
Yet he also felt like there was more that he should have done and achieved and that time to do so was running out. He decided to dive into this nagging feeling and learn more.
His own informal research and conversations with many experts in human growth and development, lifespan, aging, psychology and even primatology revealed that some level of this slump in the 40s to early 50s is not only common, but normal. We’re familiar with the stereotype of “midlife crises,” usually involving red sports cars, but, although, like most stereotypes, this one holds true in some cases, the reality is that for most people it is less dramatic than a crisis. It’s more like an underlying sense of unease and disappointment. In most cases it is not precipitated by any momentous event; it just sort of creeps in and makes itself known. There is even evidence that this midlife melancholy has a basis in biology. Experts who study our primate relatives have recognized that middle-aged chimpanzees and orangutans exhibit signs of a slump that resembles what humans experience.
Since “crisis” doesn’t accurately describe the more common—yet largely undiscussed—phenomenon, Rauch searched for a word that better captured it—slump, melancholy, dissatisfaction. All of those fit, but the one that resonated with me the most was “malaise”—”a general feeling of discomfort, illness, or uneasiness whose exact cause is difficult to identify,” according to Oxford Languages. While “illness” doesn’t fit my personal experience (another reason to be grateful!), “discomfort” and “uneasiness” certainly do, and there is no single, easily identifiable cause, which is why I believe it feels so shameful and ungrateful to discuss.
Rauch’s book convinced me that we need to be able to talk about it, though. Just knowing that it is common, even close to universal, albeit to varying degrees, mitigates the sense of shame. So, I decided to write about what I read in Rauch’s book and to own up to my own experience with this midlife malaise. And I also wanted to share hope.
Rauch’s research revealed that, while this midlife malaise is prevalent and unpleasant, those who study the phenomenon have consistently found that it occurs in the shape of a U-curve, with a peak in the 20s, a gradual decline to a nadir that varies from the mid-40s to mid50s, averaging around age 50 worldwide, to a gradual incline into the 70s. One reason for this seems to be the development of wisdom, an emerging area in science. Viewed through a lens of wisdom, midlife malaise can best be described as a passage from one phase of adulthood to another. It makes me think of a term we hear in higher education: “the murky middle.” In higher ed this refers to sophomore and junior years, when college students are most at risk for dropping out.
Midlife can feel murky but viewed as a passage to a state of greater contentment with the potential benefit of wisdom, it feels more normative and hopeful.
Monika Ardelt, an Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Florida, is one of the experts Jonathan Rauch consulted. She studies wisdom and considers it to be a “combination of personal qualities” that she divides into three categories: cognitive, reflective and affective. She defines cognitive wisdom as “an understanding of life and a desire to know the truth.” In action this is a recognition of both the positive and negative aspects of life and an ability to make decisions in the face of uncertainty. Reflective wisdom is “a perception of phenomena and events from multiple perspectives.” This may manifest as accepting responsibility for one’s own circumstances. Finally, affective wisdom is “sympathetic and compassionate love for others,” which is pretty self-explanatory.
In a 2014 article in The Atlantic, Rauch gives a good synopsis of the topics in the book, including reasons why it is important to share this information. He says, “The story of the U-curve . . . is a story not of chaos or disruption but of a difficult yet natural transition to a new equilibrium. And I find that when I tell troubled middle-aged people about it, their reaction is one of relief. Just knowing that the phenomenon is common can be therapeutic.” He notes that some of the experts he consulted agreed that the awareness of this normal passage can make an important difference in mitigating both the suffering that it can cause and the regrettable decisions that can result when people blame relationships, jobs or other life circumstances for their discontent. That’s not to say those things don’t ever need to be addressed or changed, but they don’t always, and making those changes should be well considered, rather than rash. Princeton researcher Hannes Schwandt said, “Part of your disappointment is driven by disappointment itself.”
As Rauch says, “People thrash around for explanations, which can lead to attribution errors and bad decisions. And those, of course, can bring on what really is a stereotypical midlife crisis, complete with lurching change and ill-judged behavior.”
Ultimately, Rauch recommends caution when making major decisions in midlife. He outlines this strategy:
Be careful: Because of the underlying sense of dissatisfaction, there can be a tendency to make reckless decisions, upending lives. This could be the right direction, but it very well might not be. It might be best to take a wait-and-see approach.
Step, don’t leap: Make changes gradually. Build on your life experience to this point, rather then abruptly throwing everything away.
Reach out: As is true in most things in life, shame is reduced when we can talk openly and especially when we realize that others experience the same thing.
Consider coaching: As Rauch describes, “coach and client work as allies to better align the client’s life and values. That approach is well suited to those who feel successful yet unfulfilled.” This can be very helpful in making reasoned changes that reflect the client’s growing wisdom as she/he progresses through the passage of midlife.
Forewarned is forearmed: It’s too late for those of us who are already working our way through midlife malaise, but being more open about this phenomenon can help those younger people who have not yet reached that point. Just knowing that it might be coming and that it is normal can minimize the misery it can provoke.
If in doubt . . . wait: Once again, the best approach may be patience. While it may be hard to tease out the difference between patience and complacency, it can be valuable to proceed with caution and wait and see what changes really need to be made and what actually is okay or even good.
Have you experienced this midlife malaise? Are you on the upside of the U-curve? I feel, at 51, like I am starting—just starting—to ride up the other side of the U. Reading Rauch’s book gave me hope and helped to normalize my feelings. I still have moments when I feel ungrateful because of the discontent I feel, but I have released some of the unhelpful mental habits that tormented me more a few years ago, like comparing my accomplishments to those of similar or younger age. We all live our own lives and create our own paths as we go. No two of us are exactly alike. We are all strong in some areas and not as strong as others. But I firmly believe that we can all make positive contributions in the world and that there is a difference we are all meant to make. This may look dramatically different from one person to another, so comparing is pointless at best and masochistic at worst.
If you can relate with the concept of midlife malaise, I recommend Rauch’s book. It is excellent and enjoyable to read, and I found it tremendously helpful.
Whether you are experiencing a midlife slump or just feel like there is more you can do to optimize your life, I’d love to help. Claim your free Blossom 2021 Quick Coach Power Session by clicking the button below to sign up to receive a link to schedule your session. In this coaching call, we’ll get right down to business with a powerful coaching conversation designed to help you blossom in 2021.
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I have journaled for many years. For a long time, I did it
frequently, but without any real structure or schedule. That changed in 2011,
when I was looking for strategies to help me feel more positive about life,
during a particularly painful time. I learned about Martin
Good Things” practice. I have written about this practice previously
because it has been (and continues to be) so meaningful to me.
The simple “Three Good Things” practice became the
foundation for the journaling that I faithfully began doing each night. Every
single night—even when I am Biking Across Kansas—I
write in my journal about three things that went well during the day. Sometimes
they are big things. Often, they are small things. The point of the practice is
to stop and notice that good things happen, even on the most mundane day.
Sometimes it is more difficult than others to come up with my three things. On
a particularly difficult day, it might be something as basic as, “My warm
shower felt good.” This helps me recognize gifts and blessing in the midst of
challenges and disappointments. In addition to naming my three things, I follow
each with the question, “Why?” and then write about why this was a good thing.
This reflection is brief, but it is key to noticing why I feel good about
something. In a 2005 study
by Seligman, et al., participants who used the Three Good Things” practice for
a week experienced improved mood for six months. I recognized the benefits so
quickly after starting it that I made it a permanent practice.
This practice is so helpful that I have added check-ins throughout
the day, when I am feeling stressed or tired or anxious. Mentally, I will take
a moment to name three good things that have happened up to that point in the
day. A variant that helps me get out of bed in the morning is to identify three
things to which I am looking forward in the coming day.
Over time, I have added other questions that have benefitted
me. Currently, in addition to my Three Good Things practice. Here are the
others I use:
What do I want for and from myself tomorrow?
This helps me to begin to set an intention for the next day. When I think about
how I want the day to look, I can approach it consciously, making decisions
that support my intention.
Do I have any regrets about my choices
today? As I wrote in this post, my theme for
2019 is “No Regrets.” By checking in with myself each night, I take an honest
look at the choices I made during the day and assess whether they were aligned
with my values, goals and priorities. This idea of living to avoid regrets has
become so compelling that I have recently refocused my coaching practice to
help people who have become aware of how quickly time passes develop the
energy, mindset and well-being to accomplish what they want to accomplish and
live with no regrets. I strive to do this in my daily life, as well.
How will I live with no regrets tomorrow?
This is when I decide if and how I need to adjust my choices the next day. It
is also when I consider my responsibilities for the day and plan proactively to
remain in alignment with values, goals and priorities.
Within the last couple months, I have added to my nightly
journaling practice with the “Three Question Journal,” developed by Angeles Arrien. This practice has been
used with medical students to help them recognize meaning in their work. I find
that it can help me identify and acknowledge meaning in my life, too. Rather
than overlooking or taking for granted events that have taken place during the
day, I acknowledge the meaning they help create in my life. Here are the three
What surprised me today?
What touched my heart today?
What inspired me today?
The key with these questions is to write the first thing
that comes to mind and to briefly reflect on it. One of the profound insights
that I obtained in reading Kelly McGonigal’s The
Upside of Stress: Why Stress is Good for You and How to Get Good at It, is her assertion that “A meaningful
life is a stressful life.” I realized, upon reading this, that the mundane
things that are part of my daily life, like work and family, while being
significant contributors to stress in my life, are also significant
contributors to meaning in my life. Recognizing this was truly life changing
for me. This three-question practice reinforces this recognition.
My nightly journaling does not take all that long, but it is
time well spent. It enables me to finish the day feeling centered, having
integrated my daily activities and my thoughts and feelings about them. I
finish by reading until I am ready to go to sleep and then choosing a quote
from my collection for reflection, as I go to sleep.
My nightly journaling practice is one component of my
non-negotiable self-care practices. Other things, like my morning mindfulness
practice, exercise, plant-based nourishment and my various check-ins throughout
the day round out my practice. Any of these is important alone, but together
they support each other and add a greater sense of meaning and contentment to
I encourage you to begin a nightly journaling practice, if
you don’t already have one. You may want to use some or all of the questions I
include. While there are times that I simply free-write in my journal, these
questions are always part of my nightly practice. If you are starting with just
one part of what I do, I recommend starting with “Three Good Things,” since
this has been shown scientifically to enhance happiness in people who did it. Anecdotally,
I can attest to its effectiveness. Once you have that practice in place, trust
your instincts to add others—either from the ones that are meaningful to me or
some that you adapt.
I have tried and abandoned some strategies because they
didn’t serve me as well as these do. Several months ago, I subbed, “Was I
better today than yesterday?” for “What do I want for and from myself
tomorrow?” I missed the latter question, so I added it back and included my “no
regrets” questions. This feels like a better fit.
I find that the structure of the questions and the soothing
ritual they provide increase the centeredness I feel from the journaling. The
practice helps put everything in its place for the day. I hope you will give structured nightly
journaling a try and let me know how it affects your life.
For a long time, I have believed that it was nobler to choose a direction based on moving toward a desired destination than on moving away from a current condition. Recently, as I have thought about this idea, I have recognized what I am calling “the comfort conundrum.”
I have become aware that I sometimes have difficulty taking meaningful action toward a change because my current situation is comfortable. It is not always clear to me if inertia or a deep longing for stability is behind the pull of the comfort of the known. Maybe, it is a little of both. I have a strong fear of being mired in inertia, but I acknowledge that it is possible that inertia plays into the equation. As I get older, I am also aware of a longing for stability with relationships, with career and with habits.
Stability feels honorable. Inertia feels repugnant. Where is the line between them?
When pondering taking a risk to move in a new direction, as I have said in another post, I sometimes find myself thinking, “It would be easier not to . . ..” That is not a good enough reason for me, though.
As Michael Bungay Stanier says,
“You need to get clear on the payoff for changing something as familiar and efficient . . . as an old behavior.”
Or, as Simon Sinek would say, we must be clear on our “why.”
I realize that comfort is a blessing, a gift, something that so many people in the world do not have, in even the most basic ways. I am grateful for my comfort, but I am also troubled by the comfortable state of “good enough” because I am often just comfortable enough that I am not compelled to make a change. My pull to stay put can be a cyclical thing, varying with my current level of comfort or discomfort in a given situation.
This conundrum presents itself as ambivalence—a constant tug-of-war between the comfort of stability and the excitement of possibility.
Shortly before I left on a recent bike ride, I came across a simple method for quantifying happiness. I was reading the book The Upside to Your Dark Side: Why Being Your Whole Self—Not Just Your “Good” Self—Drives Success and Fulfillment, by Todd Kashdan and Robert Biswas-Diener. The book, as a whole, did not resonate with me, but it mentions a 1965 study by Dr. Hadley Cantril, which used a simple image of a ladder to quantify happiness. Dr. Cantril asked study participants to visualize the ladder with numbers from zero to ten on each ascending rung. With the lowest rung being the worst possible life, and the highest being the best possible life, participants rated both where they currently placed themselves on the ladder and where they expected to be in five years. I used my time on that bike ride to consider this ladder exercise for myself. It was revelatory for me to this, and I came to the conclusion that there is a tipping point in the conundrum. It is easier to recognize this, if I look at different aspects of my life, rather than at my life, as a whole. Quantified, the conundrum zone seems to be five to seven. In this zone, I am “comfortable enough.” Stability is appealing here because it is known and safe, and there are things I really like about it. The tipping point, where it becomes too uncomfortable to remain, seems to be four or lower. As Anais Nin said,
“The day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.”
Picturing my placement on the ladder in five years was an instructive wake-up call. It would be easy to remain in the zone of the comfortable known, around a six in certain areas of my life. But, when I consider that I would be in exactly the same situation in five years, without having moved the dial on certain things that I really do want to change or goals that I really do want to meet, I realize that I will have regret and disappointment.
Because the conundrum zone is comfortable enough, this recognition came with some sadness and even a little dread, but the fear of regret and disappointment in myself is even more persuasive than the draw of stability.
In certain areas, stability wins. In others, I know that I must dig deep for the courage to move out of the comfortable status quo, in order to avoid being in the same place (or possibly lower, due to regret and disappointment) on the ladder.
I also found it interesting to use this exercise retrospectively. It seems even more difficult than projecting into the future, but, looking back, where was I on the ladder—as a whole and in various aspects of my life—five years ago?
I haven’t solved the challenge of the comfort conundrum, but I have new insight on it, and on the necessity of overcoming it, after doing this exercise.
Although I don’t think this was the application that Dr. Cantril intended, the ladder exercise seems a useful tool for any of us who find ourselves struggling to achieve a goal or make a change that, on the surface, we believe we want. Paired with the idea of the comfort conundrum, we can recognize why we may not be following through on our goal, change or habits and ask ourselves how we would feel about being on the same rung in five years.
I encourage you to try it. You may want to look first at where you currently would be on the ladder, from the perspective of your whole life. Then, where do you expect to be on the ladder in five years? Why? How do you feel about that? Where do you want to be? What would need to change, in order for you to move up to that rung?
Then, if there is a specific change you have been considering—a habit, a relationship, a career move, weight loss, something else—but have not made any real progress, apply the exercise to that change. Where are you on the ladder currently? Do you find yourself in the zone of the comfort conundrum—five to seven? If so, are you okay with still being there in five years? If you are, maybe it is time to let go of that goal and adopt one that is more compelling for you. If not, what needs to happen to put you on track to climb up the ladder to where you want to be?
After my ride and this thought exercise, I had a clearer picture that, although I am comfortable enough in certain areas of my life, the idea of remaining on the same rung in five years is heavy with the dread of disappointment and regret. With this recognition, I realize that I have the responsibility to take the necessary steps to climb to my desired rung on the happiness ladder.
How about you? Are you satisfied with where you expect to find yourself on the ladder in five years?
“You must want change more than you want the status quo.” Marcia Ramsland
Gretchen Rubin is one of my favorite authors. She writes about happiness and habits, two topics of interest to me. She has developed a collection of what she calls her “Secrets of Adulthood,” lessons she has learned over the years that help her to navigate life on a day-to-day basis.
I recently pondered one of these on my bike, and I decided I would pose the question it generated for me to you.
Rubin says, “Give yourself limits to give yourself freedom.”
While this may seem contradictory at first, it is not.
The question I encourage you to ask yourself is, “What limits can you give yourself to create more freedom in your life?”
You can start by considering whether there is something from which you would like to be free. Is there a habit you would like to eliminate? Do you long to be free from a negative self-image? Would you like to shed some physical or emotional weight? Is financial debt weighing you down? Is it the heaviness of regret or disappointment? Is there someone you need to forgive? Do you need to forgive yourself?
The sources of bondage are endless. Freedom requires proactive action. Rubin’s secret of adulthood is one of the keys to the kind of proactive action that can free you from whatever bondage has its hold on you.
During that introspective bike ride, I was considering where I could add limits to create freedom in my own life. One area that came to mind was my relationship with chocolate. Periodically, I can fall into the trap of using chocolate as a crutch. I have to catch myself, acknowledge it and be willing to impose limits, in order to free myself from its clutches and consequences. While different issues will call for variations on these ideas, using chocolate dependence as an example, here are the steps I recommend for setting limits to create freedom:
Check in with yourself. A mindfulness practice is a great way to do this. Taking time each day to stop, quiet your mind and notice if there is anything that has you feeling unsettled can help you catch issues that are preventing you from being truly free.
If there is a pattern that creates anxiety or raises negative feelings or something that you wish were different in our life, recognize it and acknowledge it for yourself. This might just be in your head, but it might be helpful to journal or talk to someone about it.
Decide what limits you need to create freedom. I have treated my tendency toward dependence on chocolate in different ways at different times. When it was severe, 12 years ago when we moved to a new home with a toddler, I eliminated the option of chocolate consumption in any form. This felt necessary at the time. I did not allow myself any chocolate for three years. While difficult at first, it was very freeing. Once I had other safeguards in place, it felt safe to allow it back into my life in controlled situations. Overall, that served me for many years, but, in the past several weeks, I loosened my limits to compensate for perceived lack in other areas of life (That could be another whole blog post.), and I recently recognized and acknowledged to myself that I was disappointed with my lack of control (even though it is nothing like it was in 2006), and I wanted to do something about it. On my bike, when I was reflecting on Rubin’s secret of adulthood, I considered eliminating all chocolate again. That doesn’t feel necessary. I decided that I would allow myself chocolate in two situations (in addition to cocoa and cacao in my smoothies): one square of at least 70% cacao dark chocolate after dinner and infrequent dark chocolate chips when I have what I call a “comfort bowl.” This is something I do only about once a week, and it consists of some combination of the following items: raw oatmeal, berries or cherries, vegan yogurt, nuts and/or seeds, cacao nibs, cocoa, nut butter and dark chocolate chips. This feels like a comforting and decadent treat. That’s it. On a daily basis, I will not eat chocolate in other situations.
Know yourself. Do you need the added accountability of acknowledging the problem to someone else, like a trusted friend, counselor or coach? Determine what support you need to remain within your self-imposed limits and seek it.
Affirm your daily success. Each day that you remain within your limits, honor yourself and celebrate in a way that is aligned with your goals.
Relish the freedom. Notice how much lighter and happier and FREER you feel.
Build on the freedom and success. What is your next project? Where can you gain even more freedom by giving yourself limits?
I think the first time I read about this concept of freedom through limits, it was framed as freedom through discipline by Maia Duerr. It resonated with me at the time in a profound way. I could recognize periods in my life where the idea had been true, but it was the first time I had seen it named.
My hope is that by bringing your attention to this idea, you may be motivated to acknowledge an area where you could free yourself by limiting yourself and that you will find the courage to do so.
“The price of discipline is always less than the pain of regret.”