Is Adulthood So Miserable?
At night, when I tuck her in, my younger daughter tells me with a sigh of contentment, “Mom, I love life.”
It’s a parental dream come true, and her happiness makes my heart sing in my chest. But towards the end of last year, as I turned off her lights and headed wearily to my own bed, her nightly declaration pricked at my conscience uncomfortably. While my daughter went to her bed hugging bliss, I did not. In fact, as the calendar turned to December, the merriest time of the year, I was well below zero on the loving life thermometer. My lack of gratitude for the many blessings in my life made me feel ashamed and guilty, but still, I couldn’t shake the depressive mixture of anxiety, disappointment, and unhappiness that shadowed my days.
Sure, it’s easy to love life when you’re a kid, others told me when I brought up this yawning chasm between Clara’s happiness and mine. Kids don’t have the stress we do, they explained. Kids don’t have to worry about making ends meet or putting dinner on the table or keeping everything from falling apart. “You can’t expect to go to bed loving life like Clara does,” declared one pragmatic friend. “It isn’t realistic.”
This may be true, but part of me resisted accepting that fate as mine. I kept asking myself, Is adulthood really so miserable? And more importantly, is that the message I wanted to model for my happy-go-lucky daughter? Realistic or not, I wanted to love life. I wanted Clara to see through my example that she could love life at any age.
Ignoring the naysayers, I made a note that read “I want to love life. Like Clara.” I pinned it to my bulletin board. It was my first New Year’s resolution.
What Would Help Me Love Life Right Now?
I realized quickly that despite my sincere desire to love life, I’d gotten so out of the habit that I’d forgotten how. When I sat down to make a list of all the things I loved to do, I couldn’t come up with a single item. I’d gotten so mired in being a grown up that I’d lost my ability to live with joy.
To reteach myself the art of life love, I had to downsize my resolution. Instead of trying to embrace my whole life at once, I shrank my focus to loving life moment by moment. Adapting the saying by Zen master Rinzai, “What in this moment is lacking?”, I took to asking myself, “What would help me love life right now?”
The first thing I noticed was that “What would help me love life?” was a very different question than “What would help me feel better?” What would help me feel better usually involved three lattes and an entire batch of cookies. Excellent in the short-term, but the rebound effect was unpleasant to say the least.
The answer to what would help me love life usually had a more grounded solution with better long-term results: Sitting for a moment with a cup of tea at the kitchen table, walking with a friend even when I didn’t think I had time, staying up to read a few more chapters and then letting myself sleep in the next morning, and chucking several items off my to-do list because they made my happiness meter dip dangerously low.
The most surprising discovery was that often the answer to my question was “Nothing.” I’d realize as I moved through my day–driving the girls to school, stacking wood by the front door, eating dinner with my family–that I didn’t actually need anything else to make me happy. Sometimes loving life was as simple as dropping all thoughts about everything I needed to do in the future or letting go of replaying scenes from the past. Loving life was as easy as being in the present moment.
After a few weeks of this, I realized with a certain degree of surprise that I was practicing mindfulness. Mindfulness is the major concept anchoring Buddhist philosophy, but in the past, I’ve resisted the whole present moment mumbo jumbo. Living mindfully felt so boring, and seemed to conflict with my goal-oriented zeal. How can you get anywhere, how can you achieve anything if you aren’t focused on the future? If you don’t have a plan for forward progress? Living in the present seemed pretty darn complacent to me, and I equate complacency with death.
But during the last half of December, over and over again my answer to loving life was simply a matter of paying attention to what was directly in front of me. The more mindful I became, the more often I went to bed hugging happiness and gratitude. I worried less. I handled stress better. I appreciated more. I flirted with joy all day long.
My love of life increased greatly as December progressed, but near the start of the new year, the little voice in the back of my head began nagging at me. “This ‘love life’ thing is well and good for getting out of that little slump,” she scolded, “but what about some real goals to start 2013 off with a bang! Let’s make a list! Let’s form a five-page plan of action!”
Uncharacteristically, I found I couldn’t whip myself into a frenzy over possible future accomplishments because the very idea of creating more resolutions did not make me love life. In fact, the more I tried to convince myself that I should come up with at least a few aims, the more something deep inside of me–my new emerging joy perhaps?–rebelled. But that internal voice kept asking with growing alarm, “Will you still love life in the future if you don’t have goals? If you aren’t getting somewhere?”
This question became my personal Zen koan: Were mindfulness and goal-seeking mutually exclusive?
A few days after Christmas, as I struggled to find an answer to this tricky question, I picked up my husband’s new book Running on Empty by ultra athlete Marshall Ulrich. I happened to flip open to Ulrich’s “Ten Commandments of Endurance” that he created when counseling Navy SEALS about to commence training camp . The last two laws snagged my attention: “9. Be kind to yourself. 10. Quitting is not an option.”
I’d expected a version of no quitting–after all, Ulrich, at the age of 57, ran across the United States in 52 days–but what baffled me was commandment number nine. Whenever I focused on a goal, my determination not to give up often made me less than kind to myself. I’d drive myself, deny myself, and even, if necessary, berate myself along the way until I reached the finish line. In my mind, kindness and goal attainment seemed mutually exclusive.
But, interestingly enough, I’d found that my new practice of loving life moment by moment was also an exercise in self-kindness. To love life, I frequently needed to let up, soften my schedule, give myself a break, and eliminate certain goals that felt forced and tiring. But was this self-kindness really just a disguised version of giving up on my vision for the future? How do you be kind without quitting? It was a riddle within a riddle.
Meander with Purpose
I found an answer of sorts a few days later when an article entitled “What the Happiest People Know for Sure” landed in my inbox. I was about to hit delete when my eyes fell on the sentence, “The most fulfilled people were also the most spontaneous and the least goal-oriented.”
“You have got to be kidding me,” I mumbled to myself as I read further.
Apparently, motivational speaker Stephen Shapiro was earning a good living teaching goal-oriented workshops for corporations when he noticed this link between happiness and goallessness. Curious, he took a year off and conducted interviews of men and women “thriving” in their fields. He found that “the key to happiness lies in checking out the detours and back roads, literal and figurative, without fear of changing course.” He describes this goal-free living as “meandering with purpose” and “being passion-driven in the moment.”
As I read, it didn’t take me long to connect my own dots: When I loosened my grip on goal-seeking and focused on what I loved doing, my own happiness skyrocketed. But why?
There are several reasons according to Shapiro: 1. Often your goals aren’t your own. (You are fulfilling your parent’s dreams, bending to peer pressure, doing what you think you should be doing.) 2. Focusing on a goal gives you tunnel vision and you can’t see the other opportunities around you. (If you are so intent on traveling overseas, you might overlook the tourist attractions available close by.) 3. You are sacrificing the present because you are living in the future, always chasing the dream. 4. Failure is imminent. Even if you reach your goal, says Shapiro “reality seldom matches the dream in all its Technicolor splendor.”
But Shapiro’s goal-free advice has an important caveat. “Goal-free living isn’t about being aimless or saying ‘Oh, this is getting tough. I’ve got to stop,’” explains Shapiro. To live goal free you need to “Give up control. Meander with purpose. Create many paths.” Or, as poet Anne Sexton so eloquently suggestions, “Put your ear down close to your soul and listen hard.”
Just Like Clara
As I understand it, goal-free living is about loving the life in front of you, and allowing yourself enough flexibility and kindness to explore all those areas that bring you happiness.
Kind of like what I watch my daughter do every day. She rarely takes a straight line to get anywhere, but for all her seemingly directionless rambling, she arrives just the same. But the difference between her goal achievement and mine is that she has enjoyed herself along the way and is happy where she ends up. I tend to get to where I am going feeling exhausted and out-of-sorts. And often disappointed.
But not this year. This year is about loving life. This year is about being goalless and following happiness and seeing where I end up. It’s a bit frightening for me not to make my long list of resolutions and create my five-page plan, but I am taking Ulrich’s advice to heart. I am going to be kind to myself. As an experiment, I am going to give myself this year. I am going to listen hard, and moment-by-moment, I am going to remember how to love life.
Just like Clara.