I am on a path to make my life more rich and meaningful, and I encourage you to come along with me.
Because I’m approaching my 50th year, I find myself wondering about my place in the world. What is my purpose here? What will my friends and family say about me and my life when my life is over? Will I have an impact?
This musing leads me back to one question: What am I doing? When I answer this question, I feel a bit unsettled.
I’m starting to understand where my discomfort is coming from.
Like many people, I sometimes think, “When ______ happens, I’ll feel better, or my life will be good, or I’ll have ‘arrived,’ or I’ll be happy.” I set goals I want to accomplish so that any or all of those results will occur. And when I reach those goals, I do feel better!
But after a while, the luster fades, and I’m back to thinking, “When _____ happens . . .”
It’s a kind of treadmill. Researchers call it the hedonic treadmill (also known as hedonic adaptation). This is the process most of us experience when we adapt quickly to a new element in our lives. If my goal is to get a new bicycle and I achieve my goal, I’m thrilled with my new bike! But after a few weeks, I adapt to the new bike that has entered my life, and I return to my pre-bike-acquisition emotional state.
I am back on the treadmill, aiming for my next goal. The familiar question looms in front of me: What am I doing? And why?
The missing piece
I’ve been studying a type of therapy known as Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). I’m beginning to answer those questions in a way that eases my discomfort and leads me forward on the path to that richer, more meaningful life.
ACT is about accepting what we can’t control and committing to taking action. It encourages us to reflect on what we’re doing and why we’re doing it: this process helps me to understand what I’ve been overlooking in my life.
The component that I’ve been missing recently is values. Not that I don’t have any; I have numerous honorable values. But, I do not always allow them to be what my life is about. When I think about it, the most treasured times in my life have been centered on my values.
Many years ago, my partner at the time, Ruth, had metastatic breast cancer. You might think this was the worst time in my life. But it wasn’t. It was one of the best times in my life. When I look back, I see that those years were extraordinarily rich and filled with meaning. Ruth said in all sincerity that she would not have traded away her experience with cancer. And I felt the same way.
Why? Because we chose to live according to our values. We had a goal for Ruth to live as long as possible with her terminal illness, but the key was how we lived our life together during that time. We learned the art of nonresistance along the way, and so we valued acceptance. We accepted Ruth’s cancer along with the other ups and downs that come along in life.
We valued honesty and intimacy. We had many long, fruitful, cherished discussions about death, dying, and how to live our best lives. No topic was off limits. Our conversations wove a deep emotional tapestry of our relationship.
Because we knew our time together was limited, we valued being as present as possible with each other and in the world. People who experience life-limiting illnesses often say, “Colors seem more vivid, aromas smell better, and chirping birds sound like music.” I can testify that is true! Living fully in the moment does, indeed, bring more texture and brilliance to life.
I understand now that living according to my values was the essential factor that made my experience during that time so rich and meaningful. It wasn’t about goals or any thought that started with, “When _____ happens . . .”
Come with me?
I am on this path toward living a richer, more meaningful life. I’m not saying I want to live a stress-free always-happy life. I want my life to be purposeful, even when I’m struggling with sadness and depression. I want to keep meaning and intention in my awareness when things are going well and when life sucks. I want my answers to the questions, “What am I doing? And why?” to be aligned with my values.
Will you come with me?
Many of you have written to me telling me about your struggles in life, and in your stories I hear echoes of my own experiences. “If only I didn’t have depression/worries about my child/a broken heart/anxiety/lack of confidence/financial problems—I’d feel better.”
But what if you could lead a life full of purpose and meaning with those challenges? What if you could say, “I may be struggling right now, but I still know who I am and what I stand for, and I will act accordingly?”
I invite you to travel this path with me.
Will you come?
Let me know in the comments below.
We will delve more deeply into this topic in the following posts. Next up: What are values? What’s the difference between goals and values? And, how do I determine what my values are?
In subsequent weeks, we’ll discuss obstacles to living a values-based life and how we can learn to accept things that are out of our control in a gentle yet active way.
Recommended reading: The Happiness Trap, Russ Harris.