Life isn’t always the best. But it can be better.

keep cool on the swimming pool

A friend’s highly dis­crim­i­nat­ing child wrote home from camp: “The swim­ming here is not the best.”

That’s pretty much the review I’d give this entire summer—not that it’s the summer’s fault. We’ve been slammed with dead­lines at work, and my one week out of the office in June feels like a life­time ago. I’m still up in the air about whether I’m going to move apart­ments. (On the pro side, this build­ing is sort of a wreck. On the con side, I’m liv­ing here now.)  A sul­try two-week heat wave prac­ti­cally did me in.

At such times of feel­ing not the best, I often find myself cast­ing about for new perspectives—ways of think­ing about my life that inspire and recharge me. Here are four that have recently cap­tured my imag­i­na­tion. I’m plan­ning to spend more time with them. Per­haps some of you will join me.

1. Clar­ify your val­ues, don’t focus on goals.

Read­ing these words I had a bit of an ah hah moment. I am really really good at meet­ing goals, but more and more, I’m find­ing that the reward often doesn’t match the effort. What would hap­pen if I shifted the focus to my val­ues? This sug­ges­tion comes via George Mason psy­chol­ogy pro­fes­sor Todd B. Kash­dan, whose “Your First Step Down a Pur­pose­ful Path” graphic is now mak­ing the Inter­net rounds.“Make up a declar­a­tive list of what’s impor­tant to you” is what Kash­dan coun­sels. In any case, it’s bound to be inter­est­ing. I’ll let you know.

2.   What part of your life is unlived?

This is the ques­tion at the heart of Liv­ing Your Unlived Life, by Jun­gian ana­lyst Robert A. John­son, who views liv­ing out the answer as “the most impor­tant task of our mature years.” In par­tic­u­lar, he asks us to con­sider “What is unlived yet still has some urgency within you?” I’m intrigued by this ques­tion, by what amounts to an invi­ta­tion to eval­u­ate exist­ing goals in a new and larger context.

We all carry with us a vast inven­tory of aban­doned, unre­al­ized and under­de­vel­oped tal­ents and poten­tials,” John­son writes. “Even if you have achieved your major goals and seem­ingly have few regrets, there still are sig­nif­i­cant life expe­ri­ences that have been closed to you.… Of course no one can live out all of life’s pos­si­bil­i­ties, but there are key aspects of your being that must be brought into your life or you will never real­ize your fulfillment.”

3.  Move towards plea­sure. Now.  

This is the mes­sage my life coach friend Max Daniels gives her clients. Instead of wait­ing until we “deserve” the trip to Port­land or Ams­ter­dam or what­ever that thing is we yearn for—or until the per­fect con­di­tions fall mirac­u­lously into place—she encour­ages us to take action now. What espe­cially intrigues me is her idea that, in tak­ing these steps in the present moment, we in essence move closer to being the per­son we want to be. Do I believe this? I’m not entirely sure. But she doesn’t ask me to. She sug­gests that I col­lect my own evidence—which is what I’m plan­ning to do.

4. What are you look­ing for­ward to?

From my busy sum­mer, I am mov­ing into an even more busy fall, and at times I can feel like my friend’s three-year-old who, informed that she couldn’t wear her sun­dress in Jan­u­ary, hurled her­self onto her bed with the cry: “I’ll never be happy again!” That’s when this ques­tion comes in handy. Because right at this very moment, I can think of a num­ber of things com­ing up to which I’m look­ing for­ward. Yoga and brunch with fel­low west­ern Mass ex-pat Molly tomor­row. Din­ner next week with Meta and (maybe) Delia. Meet­ing vir­tual writer friends Trish and Dorie in real life (that’s irl, to the cyber-centric) early next month. And those are just the things that come to mind in 30 sec­onds. Tak­ing time to reg­u­larly ask myself this ques­tion is a way of bal­anc­ing out my ten­dency to focus on the hard stuff.  It doesn’t make it go away, but it puts things into perspective.

5. Take stock of how you rocked

Take my advice—I’m not using it! This quip came to mind yes­ter­day as I read Trish’s post inspired by one of mine about tak­ing stock of all we’ve accom­plished in the pre­vi­ous year at times when it feels like that list is mighty pal­try. You know what? It never is, as I was (once again) hap­pily reminded. Next month will mark a year since I moved back to Boston, which seems like a per­fect moment to give this lit­tle exer­cise another whirl.

* * *

And now: Your turn. Do you have a ques­tion or strat­egy that helps move you for­ward ? If so, I’d love to hear it.

© 2013, amy gut­man. All rights reserved.

10 thoughts on “Life isn’t always the best. But it can be better.

  1. All five sug­ges­tions cer­tainly apply to me. I would add one more that is essen­tial in my life: Reach out to oth­ers, friends and also strangers. See if you can put a smile on their face or per­haps just make a lit­tle of their pain go away. You will be amply rewarded by that smile or that sigh of relief, or a quiet “Thanks.”

  2. Afer read­ing your col­umn I kept com­ing back to the idea of “Liv­ing your Unlived Life.” That’s an intrigu­ing notion. It seems a nice com­ple­ment to the idea of avoid­ing regret. When I hear peo­ple speak of avoid­ing regret, it seems that advice often applies at cru­cial deci­sion points. It’s some­thing you do now to avoid dis­ap­point­ment later. But liv­ing your unlived life seems to put the empha­sis in a dif­fer­ent place. It seems to say, ok, now you’ve got­ten this far, but what is it you’ve over­looked? It’s kind of like fac­ing up to the regret you’ve wound up with but still have the oppor­tu­nity to put behind you.

    Look­ing for your unlived life car­ries the promise it’s not too late to live it.

  3. A few months ago, after I told my hus­band that my life felt a bit dull, I went back over the last month and reviewed it, mak­ing a list of sig­nif­i­cant events using ‘data’ from my jour­nal and from my cal­en­dar. I was amazed. What was dull about it? I had done tons of inter­est­ing things! I’ve learned from that not to trust my pass­ing judg­ments.
    Since then I’ve made the monthly review a reg­u­lar rou­tine, and I don’t wait til the end of the month to com­pile it. At first I just kept a run­ning list of any mem­o­rable event or activ­ity. Then I decided it would be eas­ier to re-read if I used cat­e­gories, so my cur­rent ones (which are very fluid) are: my busi­ness, trips, health, friend­ships, gifts to myself, magic moments, fam­ily and fit­ness.
    I like this new tool, It’s help­ing to both affirm what I’ve done and pro­pel me into the next moment.

  4. This is a fan­tas­tic post. I was also sur­prised at the power of stock-taking a few weeks back (Beehive’s first birth­day). Writ­ing a year-in-review (both from a busi­ness per­spec­tive and a per­sonal one) was more restora­tive than a week off (well.….). Thanks for the good writ­ing and great reminders.…
    Tess Poe recently posted…Happy Birth­day, Beehive!My Profile

  5. I have been read­ing The Power of Now, and it has helped me get out of funks, not by look­ing for­ward to things in the future (as I often do), but instead by look­ing at some­thing in my imme­di­ate now that I love. Things that I have noticed: the rustling of the trees in the wind, the sound of my own breath, hydrangeas that I cut from my gar­den, the smell of the Meyer lemons that I brought back from Cal­i­for­nia, etc.

    As I tran­si­tion into a busy start of the fall semes­ter, it’s nice to have some­thing to ground me and calm me at this very moment.
    Molly Monet recently posted…Our House is a Very, Very, Very Fine HouseMy Profile

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