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.

Copyright © 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. Not sure how I found you… someone posted your article on rejection…. Thrilled to be here. I’m spending time this morning working on these 5 questions. Values always trip me up but I am trying! And, I think the taking stock exercise is exactly what I need right now!
    Thank you so much!

    • So glad the post resonated, Walker! And welcome–my blog posting isn’t super regular, but I do hope to see you more.

  5. 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….

    • Thanks, Tess! Congratulation on the anniversary! Look forward to reading the post & and hoping to find a time to connect in the next month or two. I really want to visit Beehive and talk to you about it.

  6. 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.

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