Thank you to Austin Kleon for making me aware of an article from Oliver Burkeman at The Guardian, “eight secrets to a (fairly) fulfilled life”. I love it when people have the gift of being able to distil complex topics into easy to understand language.
Some things that really hit me over the head:
When stumped by a life choice, choose “enlargement” over happiness. I’m indebted to the Jungian therapist James Hollis for the insight that major personal decisions should be made not by asking, “Will this make me happy?”, but “Will this choice enlarge me or diminish me?” We’re terrible at predicting what will make us happy: the question swiftly gets bogged down in our narrow preferences for security and control. But the enlargement question elicits a deeper, intuitive response. You tend to just know whether, say, leaving or remaining in a relationship or a job, though it might bring short-term comfort, would mean cheating yourself of growth. (Relatedly, don’t worry about burning bridges: irreversible decisions tend to be more satisfying, because now there’s only one direction to travel — forward into whatever choice you made.)
As someone who struggles with anxiety, this hit hard. File this under “things I wish I would have learned 20 years ago”.
The advice you don’t want to hear is usually the advice you need. I spent a long time fixated on becoming hyper-productive before I finally started wondering why I was staking so much of my self-worth on my productivity levels. What I needed wasn’t another exciting productivity book, since those just functioned as enablers, but to ask more uncomfortable questions instead.
The broader point here is that it isn’t fun to confront whatever emotional experiences you’re avoiding — if it were, you wouldn’t avoid them — so the advice that could really help is likely to make you uncomfortable. (You may need to introspect with care here since bad advice from manipulative friends or partners is also likely to make you uncomfortable.)
One good question to ask is what kind of practices strike you as intolerably cheesy or self-indulgent: gratitude journals, mindfulness meditation, seeing a therapist? That might mean they are worth pursuing. (I can say from personal experience that all three are worth it.) Oh, and be especially wary of celebrities offering advice in public forums: they probably pursued fame in an effort to fill an inner void, which tends not to work — so they are likely to be more troubled than you are.
It’s really easy to get stuck in the trap of reading about all the things you should be doing rather than just doing them. I should know. I’m an expert over-thinker.
I can personally vouch for journaling and seeing a therapist as things with pursuing. I’m seeing a new therapist now and it’s been…terrifying. In a good way.