Sunday, December 8, 2019

Love Actually

Ok, warning right off the top. This essay started off as one thing and then kind of became another. It’s also sort of a Christmas story.

But let me back up.

A few weeks back I had to give a speech. It had to be funny, and charming, and smart, and kind of ted talky without seeming like I was trying too hard. It was sort of a tall order. 

So, like any good plagiarist in the 21st century, I turned to the place any sensible person would go.


While browsing various videos, I came across a wonderful graduation speech by David Foster Wallace called “This is Water.” Here’s a quote.

“It is extremely difficult to stay alert & attentive instead of getting hypnotized by the constant monologue inside your head.” 

The entire speech is a reflection on how we get so wrapped in our own heads, and what we might chose to do about it. If we can somehow remember that the “idiot” in traffic, or the “moron” holding up the line at the store might just be having as bad of a day as we are, we might even chose to be compassionate instead of irritated. To get out of our monologue of near constant complaint and rumination and back into the world with the others.

It’s a wonderful idea. Easy to understand, much harder to actually implement.

Because much of our irritation with the world, is actually irritation with ourselves. When I snap at someone in a store, I really am saying, “Can’t you see I’m having a bad day?” “Don’t you know how many things are going on in my life right now?”

But of course they don’t know. And we don’t know what’s going on with them either.

But you can bet they are fighting some kind of battle (not my quote by the way.)

Deep down we all want to be seen. To be understood. But life intervenes. Gets busy. Gets messy.

But someone needs to make the first move sometimes, and that someone can be us.

Which leads us to my Christmas story.

I was away for a weekend recently, and had two very fun days. Without getting into the details, on the third day, my head was less than stellar, my back hurt from a lumpy hotel bed, and I was quite irritated with the world.

And then I remembered. That relentless monologue of complaints!! Don’t feed that damn thing today.

As luck would have it, Love Actually was on that morning, and I sat and watched the whole thing before I went out for the day. It was gong to be a very busy day of Christmas shopping out there, and I wanted to see if Love actually was all around. But more importantly I wanted to see what I could do to contribute to this.

So I went around the city, and got to know everyone who served me. The barista at the coffee shop. The man selling me the underwear I ran out of the day before. The guy at the brewpub who patiently walked me through all those amazing beers.

And then I simply took a second, went online, and wrote them the most glorious reviews. Katie was a true artist with a coffee machine. Derrick is an amazing ambassador for your beer. Bob sells a hell of a pair of underwear. 

You get the idea.

And then I went and showed them what I had written. I tried to be as specific as possible with my compliments while also being sincere.

What I got in return were some of the happiest smiles I had seen in a long time. It reminded me of this experiment I saw one time where a cameraperson went around and told everyone something about them that was beautiful. Here is a picture of the before and after.

See the difference?

I do not share this story to simply pat myself on the back. Nine times out of ten, I would have proceeded through a day like this being irritable with people. Fed the monologue. Then I would have felt guilty. 

It’s no way to spend a day.

The lesson is something we need to practice. All the time. Every day.

When you change your perspective, everything really does change. Like you are literally turning one of those old kaleidoscopes and rearranging the things you see.

We can rearrange the world like this anytime we want.

But fuck is it hard to remember that.

As for me, I am embarking on a long trip home for Christmas. There will undoubtedly be pressures, squabbles, hangovers, and silly family arguments.

That’s the holidays. That’s why guys like me are so busy this time of year.

But I’m going to remind myself that Love Actually IS all around.

But someone has gotta make the first move.  

This year, I’ll give it a shot.

Merry Christmas!!!

Monday, October 28, 2019

Keep Yourself Alive

I have to admit, as movies go, I love a music biography.

Sure they take some liberties with the stories, but overall these make for great cinema. And I’m a sucker for a good redemption story. Johnny Cash in Walk the Line. Ray Charles in Ray. Elton John in Rocket Man.

But today I wanted to talk about a song from the movie Bohemian Rhapsody about Freddy Mercury and Queen. It was one of their first hits and features at the beginning of the movie.

Keep yourself alive.

It’s sort of become my goto song this year. I play it on my phone when I’m struggling to get through 20 minutes on the treadmill.

‘Keep yourself alive’

In this instance it means, you’re getting old dude, and the choices you make all have consequences. Now get on that treadmill and finish the job. Exercise might save your life. 

But I’ve also thought about it with my clients, many of whom are literally fighting to find a reason to keep going. Often a person considering suicide doesn’t want a whole lot of advice about mental health or managing anxiety or whatever. They are just looking for one reason. Sometimes just one. And it’s your job to try and find this. Instill some hope. Find something worth sticking around for.

Keep yourself alive’

And yes, in one instance I even helped put this song on someone’s phone (yea for pirating.) It’s sort of become our thing. We play this song when life feels like it’s not going anywhere, and find that one reason to keep going. 

And sometimes things do get really dark for people. Sure you’d like to be that therapist who dazzles a client with advice about beating depression or how things pass or how suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem. 

But that’s not always the move. Someone in a dark place doesn’t always want to hear that stuff. They’ve probably already thought about these things and then feel guilty for feeling suicidal. It’s important to meet people where they’re at. Sometimes you need to empathize with the fact that life in that moment has lost all of its light. And sometimes one person, just one person, being able to listen to their story without judgement is itself quite therapeutic. Support comes with many faces. Sometimes it’s just listening. Often it’s just listening.

And in being this person for someone else, the most amazing thing happens. You keep YOURself alive. The single best antidote to feeling worthless, useless, and hopeless, is to be that person for someone else. It sounds counterintuitive, but I have almost never met a depressed person who didn’t have that kindness or compassion towards others, that they were often unable to give to themselves. As Robin Williams said, “I think the saddest people always try their hardest to make people happy because they know what it’s like to feel absolutely worthless and they don’t want anyone else to feel like that.”


So for anyone reading who finds themselves struggling to find their hope, please, just for today at least, keep yourself alive. Listen to some music. Eat your favorite food. Watch a silly movie.

And no, I’m not just some pompous psychologist dishing out simple advice. I’m talking like this because sometimes it’s been a struggle for me as well. We all need to dig for our reasons to keep going once in a while. But things do change. They do pass. Again, I’m speaking from personal experience.  Think of all the mornings you didn’t think you could get out of bed to face another day. How many financial worries that have come and gone. All the bad holidays. All the long winters.

You’re stronger than you give yourself credit for.

Now keep yourself alive.

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Which wolf are you feeding?

An old Cherokee is teaching his grandson about life. “A fight is going on inside me,” he said to the boy.

“It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves. One is evil – he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.” He continued, “The other is good – he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. The same fight is going on inside you – and inside every other person, too.”

The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather, “Which wolf will win?”

The old Cherokee simply replied, “The one you feed.”

I like living. I have sometimes been wildly, despairingly, acutely miserable, racked with sorrow, but through it all I still know quite certainly that just to be alive is a grand thing.
Agatha Christie

“I urge you to please notice when you are happy, and exclaim or murmur or think at some point, 'If this isn't nice, I don't know what is.'”
Kurt Vonnegut

Ok. Have you read through all those quotes? Good! All three have been important things for me to reflect on in my life. I hope you enjoyed them as well.

But let’s talk about the wolves.

Encapsulated in that little story, is a great deal of what you need to know about having a successful life. 

Which wolf are you feeding?

As a psychologist for many years now, I still battle with this every day of my life. Sure I can advise others about doing this, but if I’m honest it is something I continually struggle with. Traffic is moving too slowly? Yep, that bad wolf is getting a steak. I’m in a long line that’s not moving? Same thing.

But even beyond life’s inevitable inconveniences, I sometimes feel hurt or rejected or angry about little interactions in my life. Someone doesn’t text me back. A patient rejects one of my suggestions. A cute girl I try and talk to begins frantically looking for someone else to talk to.

Bad wolves all around.

I have come to realize (although I often forget), that we have a choice as to which wolf we are going to feed perhaps dozens of times a day. It is VERY easy to feel self-righteous, offended, and disrespected. We are all brilliant at taking our own perspective.

But how much of life might be different if we could ask ourselves, “What else could this mean?”

It is often hard to access the positive wolf in these situations. Indignation and self-righteous anger is sometimes quite validating.

As we approach a new year, I would urge everyone (still) reading to think about the wolves in their own lives. Are you choosing to be grateful for what you have, or resentful about what you don’t? Are you practicing compassion when others are hurt or angry, or thinking about how their behavior has upset you? (this is a hard one).

Over a lifetime, we will be confronted by a million variations of these choices again and again and again. And if we chose anger too many times, we can eventually develop a resentful and bitter view of the world. It doesn’t happen all at once, but little by little and choice by choice by choice. 

And I would like to end by reflecting on Kurt Vonnegut’s quote, “I urge you to please notice when you are happy, and exclaim or murmur or think at some point, 'If this isn't nice, I don't know what is.'”

Life is hard enough. Let’s be honest. It IS shit sometimes. But there are some good moments too. 

There’s always a choice as to which lens we want to look at things from. That’s both the blessing and curse of free will. As John Milton said a long, long time ago, “The mind is its own place and in itself, can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven.”

Now go forth and feed your good wolf!!

Wednesday, June 5, 2019

What are you willing to suffer for?

The chains of habit are too light to be felt until they are too heavy to be broken.

Warren Buffett

“Sometimes fate is like a small sandstorm that keeps changing directions. You change direction but the sandstorm chases you. You turn again, but the storm adjusts. Over and over you play this out, like some ominous dance with death just before dawn. Why? Because this storm isn't something that blew in from far away, something that has nothing to do with you. This storm is you. Something inside of you

Haruki Murakami, Kafka on the Shore

I have to confess, I am a consumer of all things psychology. Lengthy books. Simple articles. Pop quizzes about which Harry Potter character I most resemble psychologically.

It’s sort of a guilty pleasure.

Recently I came across the idea highlighted in the title of this essay. In each instance you say to yourself, “I don’t have time” when you put off doing something you want to do, rephrase it to “I don’t make time.”

Seems simple enough. Probably an idea you could find on a couple dozen Pinterest boards.

But I think it’s a bigger idea than that. Perhaps one so big it needs looking into.

But I’ll start with myself.

I recently read a great book called “The Subtle are of Not Giving a F*ck.” It’s a popular book and I’m not going to rehash the whole thing here. But there was one concept he discussed that I couldn’t get out of my head.

Don’t ask yourself what you want. That’s too easy. Ask yourself what you’re willing to suffer or struggle for.

So if I want to be in great shape, I’ve got to be willing to suffer the pain of going to the gym on a rainy morning when I don’t feel like getting out of bed.

If I want to find a great relationship, I’ve probably got to kiss a few metaphorical frogs and suffer through a few bad dates along the way to appreciate the right person. And even more likely, I may have to suffer through some serious self-examination about mistakes I’ve made in my past relationships.

So what AM I willing to suffer for?

I ask myself this every day now.

The truth is, health and appearance IS a source of stress for me. And yet I can always seem to rationalize skipping the gym and ordering a pizza. I work late. It’s raining. There’s something good on Netflix. My exercise gear smells funky (that one is sort of legit).

But the truth is, these are just excuses. I don’t MAKE time for exercise because I’m not always willing to suffer.

And as Mr. Buffett says, the chains of habit are too light to be felt. Until they’re not anyway.

So yes, I have been to the gym three days in a row this week. I suffered each time with the alarm clock, the rain, and yes, the exercise gear. But I made it, and I felt a lot better afterwards.

And I think a lot more about my time now. The truth is, I lost another dear friend recently who was way too young to go. I wish I could say he was the first, but the truth is, I’ve lot at least a dozen friends way too soon to health problems in their 30’s and 40’s.

It all goes so fast.

And like Gandalf says in Lord of the Rings (geeky reference), “All we have to decide is what to do with the time that has been given to us.”

I am including a powerful video about jellybeans as a final reminder of this concept. This is a fascinating reminder of what we REALLY do with our time.

It scared me straight like one of those shows where the punk kids get sent to prison for the day. I include it as a gentle reminder to myself and to everyone.

Make the most of your time.

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

The boys in the band (A tribute to some old friends)

Whenever it wants, the past can come kicking the door down. And you never know where it's going to take you. All you can do is hope it's a place you want to go.
Stephen King- Hearts in Atlantis

Harry[about Auld Lang Syne] What does this song mean? My whole life, I don't know what this song means. I mean, 'Should old acquaintance be forgot'? Does that mean that we should forget old acquaintances, or does it mean if we happened to forget them, we should remember them, which is not possible because we already forgot?

Sally: Well, maybe it just means that we should remember that we forgot them or something. Anyway, it's about old friends.
When Harry Met Sally

When we were about 20 or so, three good friends and I had a band. We’d get together, have a few (more?) beers, and crank up our favourite music.

The only catch was, none of us could actually play an instrument. Or really sing.

No, this band was more of the air guitar variety, but still, we ended up playing our various “instruments” nearly every time we got together. One of our favorite jams was “Touch of Grey” by the Grateful Dead. 

There were four of us back then, although others would drop in from time to time. Mostly we would perform this silly ritual long after the party had ended, the guests had left (or passed out) and we were the last men standing.

It’s funny to think back on those days now. How young we were. How full of promise. 

Today the last of those three guys passed away. His name was Dirk, and he was one of the nicest dudes I’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting. 

Here is Dirk.

Here is Sam.

And here is Chad.

Thinking about them all being gone now hit me with a tidal wave of both grief and nostalgia. It seems like only yesterday we were goofing around drinking cheap beer and pretending brooms and mops were guitars. 

A number of questions flooded into my head as I heard the news. 

How could they all be gone now?? We’re still in our 40’s! We get more time than this!

Why did I lose touch with these guys? We were all such good friends. 

What am I going to do to make sure I stay in better touch with my friends?

What am I going to do with the rest of my own time?

In thinking about these questions, I realized I have come back to some version of them over and over again in my life. I often find myself going back to an article I read called “The Top Five Regrets of the Dying," written by a hospice nurse about themes she heard over and over from people at the end of their lives. 

4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
"Often they would not truly realize the full benefits of old friends until their dying weeks and it was not always possible to track them down. Many had become so caught up in their own lives that they had let golden friendships slip by over the years. There were many deep regrets about not giving friendships the time and effort that they deserved. Everyone misses their friends when they are dying."

I need to read that more often. Really take it into my heart and integrate it into my philosophy of the world. Friends aren’t just hypothetical entities we can pick up with whenever we get around to it. They are living, mortal beings with a finite amount of time left on this earth.  

And I’ve learned the hard way, that sometimes this time runs out before we think it’s going to. 

I’ve also learned that platitudes are of no real use to people. “Thoughts and prayers” don’t do a whole lot either. We’ve gotta pick up phones. Hop on planes. Stoke the coals. Even the best relationships need a little fresh oxygen once in a while. 

But for me today, I’m gonna remember my three old bandmates and what they meant to me in that time in that place in that little corner of the world. Dirk was older than us. Someone we looked up to. An older brother of sorts who was fiercely loyal and protective of his tribe. He played the (fake) harmonica. When we were in High School we were on the wrestling team together. Our team sort of sucked, and Dirk as the heavyweight would often get onto the mat after all the rest of us had gotten our asses kicked. 

On one such occasion, he had to fight this massive dude who was about twice his size. The guy hadn't lost all year, and their team was already smiling and laughing before the match even began.

But then I looked in Dirk’s eyes. 

They were blazing red, and his determination was absolutely fierce. He saw the rest of us were demoralized, saw the other team disrespecting us, and something in him kind of snapped. 

Dirk pinned that dude a few minutes later. When the referee pounded that mat, we all went a little crazy. It wasn’t supposed to happen like that. 

But they didn’t know about Dirk’s heart. 

So that’s the part of him I’ll remember today. High School wasn’t the greatest time for me. I was gangly and awkward and didn’t always have people looking out for me. But Dirk did. He was one of those guys. One of the ONLY one of those guys. 

Plus he played a mean air harmonica.

So tonight I’ll go home, open a cheap beer, and listen to Touch of Grey as a tribute to an old friend. 

But after that, I’m making a list of old friends who haven’t heard from me for a while. No more excuses. No more avoidance. No more too busy.

Friends are worth it. They keep us going. Make life worth living. They are our historians, our laughter, and our memory. 

Cherish yours. They won’t be here forever. 

Believe me, I know.

Rest in Peace Old Friend

Sunday, April 21, 2019

Here be dragons (A guide to facing our biggest fears)

“So do we pass the ghosts that haunt us later in our lives; they sit undramatically by the roadside like poor beggars, and we see them only from the corners of our eyes, if we see them at all. The idea that they have been waiting there for us rarely crosses our minds. Yet they do wait, and when we have passed, they gather up their bundles of memory and fall in behind, treading in our footsteps and catching up, little by little.”

Steven King

If you look at a map from early explorers, they often had ways of marking things that seem pretty odd to us now. Unexplored areas would often include pictures of giant Sea Monsters and Dragons and exotic animals.

“Here be Dragons” became the way we described these parts of the maps.

Here be Dragons.

I got to thinking about this phrase as it relates to those things we avoid facing in our lives. I think most of us have some. My personal map has got Sea Monsters EVERYWHERE!

Here be dragons. A more accepted psychological term might relate to “core beliefs.” Those maladaptive narratives buried deep beneath layers of sophistication and impression management and the version of ourselves we chose to show to others. 

Some common core beliefs are “I’ll always be a fat person” or “I don’t deserve to be happy” and even “I’m not worthy of love.”

Image result for painful experiences limiting beliefs

Much like the early explorers avoided areas in the world because they were perceived to be too dangerous, we often avoid facing our own personal demons.

Sometimes we get away with this avoidance. For a while. We rationalize and put things off and tell ourselves we’ll get around to fixing things one day.

The problem is, by avoiding these dragons we don’t live the best lives that we’re capable of. We don’t find the best versions of ourselves.

Over the years I’ve heard a lot of examples of these dragons. One woman who identified as a hypochondriac was always pampered and cared for when she was sick as a child. She began associating being sick with being loved, and kept repeating that pattern over and over again. We finally identified this connection between being sick and being loved after many months of avoidance, canceled appointments, and therapeutic cat and mouse games.

Another example came from someone who couldn’t get their weight under control, despite decades of fad diets, personal trainers, and pills. In exploring her personal dragons, we found that she had turned to food as a source of comfort as a lonely child who moved around a great deal after her parent’s divorce. She had a hard time making friends and turned to food as a kind of companion. Years later, her weight acted as a kind of shield against getting to know people and risk being hurt. Food was the mechanism to keep this whole pattern churning.

Facing this particular dragon was very hard for her, as food was the only coping strategy she really knew. With some patience and hard work, we identified this pattern. That was half the battle. Even KNOWING about the dragon isn’t always enough. We still have to face it and respond to it.

It’s interesting to think about the motif of facing dragons. These stories go back in mythology for thousands of years. Why would that be? Massive fire-breathing creatures have never actually existed or been observed by men.

And yet, we conjure them. Have always conjured them. Perhaps that’s where the symbolism really comes from. These giant monsters have always been a reflection of one’s inner conflict with themselves.

Because that’s always the biggest battle. The largest hurdle. Even Marcus Aurelius, who conquered large swaths of the earth thought so. He often lamented how the biggest battle was harnessing the conflict in his own mind. Most great men and women would say the same I would guess.

So on this Easter Sunday, I vow to face a few of my own dragons. To slow down, examine some of my own patterns, and face things I have been avoiding. For people wishing to do the same, a core belief exercise may be a good start. As always, it’s better to have a little help along the way. See a therapist if you need to. But my wish for anyone reading is to face these dragons and limiting beliefs that have distracted them from living their best lives.

Easter always seemed like a good place to start. It’s all about renewal and starting over. Although I’m no longer religious in any traditional sense, I did always feel a huge sense of relief getting out of my powder blue suit after a two-hour mass.

THAT was a great sense of freedom.

So in the spirit of the holiday, I reflect on the words of F. Scott Fitzgerald in a letter to his young daughter.. “For what it’s worth, it’s never too late to be whoever you want to be. I hope you live a life you’re proud of, and if you find that you’re not, I hope you have the strength to start over."

I wish the same for all of you.

Happy Easter!

Saturday, February 9, 2019

Are you becoming unstuck in time?

Listen: Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time. Billy has gone to sleep a senile widower and awakened on his wedding day.
Kurt Vonnegut- Slaughterhouse Five

Books and music. Music and books.

These things have been my salvation in life.

Here’s a little story about one of each. 

Let’s start with Kurt Vonnegut and in particular Slaughterhouse Five. This book was a life-changing and perhaps even life-saving book for me. Mostly, it’s Kurt Vonnegut discussing his own wartime PTSD symptoms through the character of Billy Pilgrim, a veteran of the Dresden bombing who becomes “unstuck in time” as he leaps to and from different time periods of his life. Vonnegut worked out his own PTSD symptoms in part by writing this book, but was also making a point about the fierce and awesome power of the mind to time travel. Particularly a mind that has been affected by trauma. 

I’ve never been able to shake the phrase “unstuck in time.” It describes things I see as a therapist EVERY single day. Many of my patients just can’t shake loose from traumas or heartbreak from their pasts, and regularly time travel back to those places in their minds, in an endless loop of painful memories.

Others jump in time to the future, where they can’t stop worrying about things that might happen, and all of the bad stuff they’ve conjured up in their minds. 

Depression, Anxiety, and PTSD are all functions of people becoming unstuck in time.

But let’s come back to that. I want to tell you about the music part of the story. 

A short while ago, I was driving back from the beach, and heard the song, “This is the time” by Billy Joel. It was late at night, I was cold, a bit lonely, and it was a strange song to hear on the radio, all things considered. 

I heard the lyrics, 

‘This is the time to remember
Cause it will not last forever.’

And I’ll be damned if I didn’t become unstuck in time.

In that moment, I was 21 again, exploring the world, in love, and driving down the open road.

I drove for miles like that before I realized what happened (P.S. it’s a little scary we do that while we’re driving). That was a good memory, but on the other hand, kind of sad. Although I was young and hopeful at the time of that memory, I was also pretty anxious about my future and very unclear about how things were going to work out for me.

The French have a word called √Čnouement, which means, “The bittersweet feeling of having arrived in the future, seeing how things turn out, but not being able to tell your past self.”

That’s sort of how I felt.

Now then, back to the mental health side of this. 

ALL of us time travel sometimes. Every single one of us. Some of us look back at the past and ONLY remember the good parts. We fondly recall a lost love, but forget all of the reasons that person is out of our lives to begin with. We think our youth was the most fabulous time of our lives, but forget how hard it was being broke and often not really knowing who we were back then.

Others are inconsolable about things that have happened, and simply can’t move on. They become unstuck in time, and replay painful stories and memories in their heads that render them unable to experience joy in the present moment.

Anxious people prefer to visit the future. They’ve already made up their minds about how things won’t work out, and all the things that are going to go wrong. The psychological term for this is “catastrophizing” and it is a hallmark of most anxiety disorders.

In thinking about time traveling and how it affects our functioning, I’m certainly not suggesting we shouldn’t cherish and remember fond memories from our past. And sometimes we DO have to anticipate the things that are coming in the future and plan a little for a rainy day.

But becoming “unstuck” in time is a different matter. This is when our minds take us out of the present moment to visit another time and place to avoid something in our current lives. Perhaps we decline a social invitation because we feel like it couldn’t possibly measure up to an epic time from our past. Maybe we blow off a job interview or turn down a promotion because we’ve already decided to imagine the problematic future consequences we’re sure they might come with. 

As John Milton said hundreds of years ago, “The mind is its own place and in itself, can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven.” That’s the power of the mind to time travel. A great memory can totally make our day, but the SAME memory can lead to intense feelings of sadness. 

This is the fork in the road. Once upon a time, a VERY long book was written about depression and anxiety called, “I never knew I had a choice.” I slugged through it. It took me weeks. 

But 90% of what I got from the book was right there in the title. 

I never knew I had a choice. 

Perhaps the goal is to learn from the past, behave kindly with regard to our future selves, but understand that the person operating NOW is the only one that can do anything about things.

So yes, I’m going to continue to listen to Billy Joel and look back fondly.

But I sure don’t want to miss anyone great in my current existence that could make tomorrow’s memories a whole lot better. I even put it on my refrigerator. 

Be here now.

Be here now.

Be here now…

I don't wanna forget, but I'm sure I will.

Then remember.

Then forget.

So it goes...

Monday, January 21, 2019

Every Silver Lining's Got a Touch of Grey (Explaining the U-Shaped Life Satisfaction Curve)

Oh yeah, life goes on
Long after the thrill
Of living is gone
Jack and Diane- John Mellencamp

As much as I loathe this aging thing, I'm beginning to recognize that I am now a healthier person in terms of self-worth and knowing who I am and where I fit in the world. That’s been a good trade-off for the wrinkles.
Patty Duke

Many of the people I see in therapy are in their 40’s.

And man, they can’t get no satisfaction. 

And I can relate! What is it about middle-age that causes this? There are some obvious candidates. A lot of people are taking care of older parents as well as younger children. Health and energy are often declining, but conversely, it’s a little early to think about retirement. 

Psychologists and doctors and men with red sports cars have long debated the existence of the mid-life crisis, and, really, the jury is still out on this one. But there DOES appear to be some evidence for something called the U-Shaped Life Satisfaction Curve.- Observe

In investigating this idea, I didn’t simply cherry-pick a single graph. Jonathon Rauch wrote an entire book on the subject called, “The Happiness Curve: Why Life Gets Better After Midlife.”

In this book, he does a thorough examination of the U-Shaped Life Satisfaction Curve, and digs into the research that seems to suggest a dip in happiness into the 40’s and then a significant upswing.

Why would this be??

In the interest of full disclosure, this isn’t merely a research question for me. I know the malaise, the boredom, and the disconnection that comes with this time of life, and I want to figure this shit out as well. 

Many people Rauch interviewed for his book talked about how they “SHOULD” be happy. They’ve got more money now, they’ve advanced in their careers, and have put a lot of those manic sorts of stressors from early adulthood behind them. They SHOULD be happy.

So why aren’t they?

Rauch examines a happiness equation described as H=S + C +V +T

“H” is happiness. “S” is your emotional set point, which describes where your sort of default happiness setting lies. “V” described factors under your control, and “T” is time’s influence on life satisfaction.

And therein lies the rub. The way we look at time. People in their 40’s tend to look back at their past and think of all the good things that DIDN’T happen for them, and look into the future and see all the bad things that MIGHT happen to them.

It doesn’t seem entirely fair. 

And before you think it is only humans that tie themselves into these middle-aged knots, consider the following fact. Even CHIMPANZEES seem to go through this same sort of funk in the middle of their lives. 

At this point, the four of you that are still reading may be saying, “Are you really saying that Chimpanzees and Apes have mid-life crises’? 

Yes. I’m really saying that. Read here if you'd like to look at the evidence.

Another contributing factor is something called “affective forecasting.” It's this thing we do where we look into the future and predict how we’re going to feel about things. It turns out we kind of suck at it. Although we THINK it’s going to be awful getting older and dealing with sickness and so forth, the truth is, humans mostly just adjust to things and return to their baseline functioning. Remember our happiness set points? That’s what this is all about.

But in examining the U-Shaped Curve, the news is not all bad. That curve takes a sharp left turn at some point, and happiness really seems to rise from there. 


For one thing, our emotional regulation begins to improve. As my grandfather used to say, "Don’t sweat the petty things, and don’t pet the sweaty things.” We seem to “get” this a lot more as we get older. 

We also seem to seek opportunities to take some of the things we have learned and pay it forward. Erik Erikson called the conflict in midlife age “generativity versus stagnation.” 

In other words, we either get stuck and unsure about what to do next, or put the wisdom we’ve accumulated towards the service of others. Psychologist Dan McAdams called this the “redemptive sequence.” Sure we’ve made mistakes, but there’s still some time to do some good. Much of the upswing of the curve is about this giving, connection, and redemption.

Rauch also closes the book expelling that one of the reasons for the upswing in the curve can be summed up in three simple words. Gratitude comes easier. Sure everything didn’t work out exactly as we planned, but we begin to be more thankful for the things that we do have. Therein lies another large piece of the puzzle. 

As for me? One of my favorite songs growing up was “Touch of Grey” by the Grateful Dead, a band I embraced in my own (decades long) wayward youth. It celebrates the wisdom and resilience of aging, and the lines “I will get by," and “I will survive” became a mantra for Deadheads young and old. 

When I was 16, I knew every word to the song, and would belt out the lyrics,

“Oh well a touch of Grey
Kind of suits you anyway’

It had little relevance to my life at the time. It was still fun though.

But now? Sometimes I look at the sink, and wonder if that stray hair is actually brown or grey. But really it doesn’t matter.

Cause maybe, just maybe.

A touch of Grey,

Kind of suits me anyway...