Take stock of how you rocked 2011

 

 

 

 

It’s that time of year again, but before mov­ing on to New Year’s Res­o­lu­tions, be sure to give your­self credit for 2011.

Now, this may (at first glance) seem like a point­less exer­cise. Think­ing back on the past year, it can be easy to focus on all that you hoped to do that’s still undone: The jobs you applied for and failed to get, the book you didn’t write, the exer­cise pro­gram that you planned to make a reg­u­lar part of your life. (If you’re any­thing like me, you didn’t.)

That was cer­tainly the direc­tion my mind went when I first con­tem­plated this task—which was why I was so hap­pily sur­prised to see it was mis­lead­ing me.  (This was hardly the first time: I’ve long rec­og­nized that just because I think some­thing doesn’t mean it’s true.) Here’s a sam­pling of what I accom­plished over the past year:

  • Started writ­ing per­sonal essays and pub­lish­ing them in Huff­in­g­ton Post, Salon, and our local paper.
  • Launched this blog
  • Cleared out the packed stor­age unit that I’d been mean­ing to get rid of for a decade (and wrote an essay about it)
  • Com­pleted a grad­u­ate class in a social work (and no, I doubt that I’ll con­tinue with the pro­gram, but I’d been think­ing about it for a long time and am glad I tried it out.)
  • Ful­filled a long­stand­ing dream of work­ing with fos­ter kids, includ­ing plan­ning a writ­ing work­shop to be spon­sored by Friends of Chil­dren this spring
  • Got some really inter­est­ing free­lance writ­ing gigs that are likely to lead to more
  • Made lots of great friends in my great new com­mu­nity of Northamp­ton Mass­a­chu­setts, the first place I’ve lived in a long time that really feels like home.

There’s lots more, but you get the idea.

This was an espe­cially inter­est­ing exer­cise for me given my ini­tial assess­ment that this had been a long hard year pri­mar­ily defined by fail­ure. I felt like I’d spent most of the year try­ing, fail­ing, get­ting up, then try­ing again. Along with the suc­cesses listed above, I’d applied for (and been rejected for) a whole bunch of dif­fer­ent jobs. I wrote and cir­cu­lated a book pro­posal that failed to elicit any inter­est from the agents who perused it. The list goes on.

Hap­pily, I had this year’s daily log to con­tra­dict these thoughts.  As I recently wrote in Huff­in­g­ton Post, I started keep­ing daily logs more than a decade ago after trad­ing my struc­tured life as a law firm asso­ciate for the free-form exis­tence of an aspir­ing nov­el­ist. At the time, I was reach­ing the end of the week in a mild state of panic, think­ing “I’m not get­ting any­thing done! What is wrong with me?”

In an effort to take charge of my sched­ule, I started using a blank bound book — a so-called lawyer’s diary for which I had no fur­ther use — to track my activ­i­ties day by day. And lo and behold, I wasn’t such a slacker after all! It just felt that way. (Lest there be any doubt, I did indeed write and ulti­mately pub­lish two novels.)

Track­ing accom­plish­ments can be espe­cially impor­tant in Plan B Nation, where many of us are deal­ing with more fail­ures than we have in the past. (That’s cer­tainly the case for me.)  The fact is, these are chal­leng­ing times, and it’s not our fault. Mak­ing a con­certed effort to rec­og­nize our suc­cesses can help us to remem­ber that we do indeed have sig­nif­i­cant strengths.

So go ahead and make those New Year’s Resolutions—and do your best to stick to them. But before crack­ing the whip for 2012, cel­e­brate 2011.

Wherever you go there you are? Not necessarily

kitchen1

A year ago today, I was pack­ing up my Cam­bridge apart­ment a stone’s throw from Har­vard Square and prepar­ing to return to Northamp­ton, the bucolic west­ern Mass­a­chu­setts col­lege town where I’d pre­vi­ously lived for two years in the early aughts.

I’d been in Cam­bridge for six years, and a hard six years it was. I’m still not quite sure why. It was the third time I’d lived in the sto­ried edu­ca­tional mecca, home to Har­vard, MIT, and count­less bril­liant minds. I’d been there twice as a stu­dent. This time I was back for a job at Har­vard Law School, where I ulti­mately wound up writ­ing speeches for then-Dean (now U.S. Supreme Court Jus­tice) Elena Kagan.

It was a pretty great job in a pretty great city, but for some rea­son my life never really came together there.  Most difficult—and puzzling—of all was the fact that I couldn’t seem to make friends. Being sin­gle, my friends have always been espe­cially impor­tant to me, and not hav­ing any good friends close at hand—well, it was quite a challenge.

In fair­ness, by the time I moved, I’d man­age to col­lect a hand­ful of inti­mates, but given the time and effort I put in, the results were pretty pal­try.  Was it me? I won­dered. It had to be me. After all, who wouldn’t like Cambridge?

This was pretty much the way my thoughts were going when my boss decamped for Wash­ing­ton, D.C., and my Har­vard job abruptly ended in the spring of 2009. At the time, it seemed to make sense to just stay put. I had a strong pro­fes­sional net­work in the Boston area, and even with the Great Reces­sion upon us, the region’s job mar­ket was still rel­a­tively robust (at least com­pared to other places).

Over the next year-plus, I picked up free­lance projects and other short-term work, but more and more, I found myself pin­ing to return to west­ern Mass. While I’d last lived in Northamp­ton a decade before, I’d made fre­quent trips back to see friends, and I loved my week­end vis­its. Still, I sternly reminded myself, mini-vacations are not real life. Mak­ing a move wouldn’t change any of the very real dif­fi­cul­ties fac­ing me. I’d still be job­less, look­ing for work, still finan­cially strained. I’d still be sin­gle (which is great if you choose it, but the fact is, I had not).

Also: I already knew from expe­ri­ence that just because I thought a change would make my life bet­ter didn’t mean that it would. Psy­chol­o­gists have a fancy name for this—affec­tive fore­cast­ing error—the idea being that we humans are noto­ri­ously poor pre­dic­tors of what will make us happy.

Wher­ever you go there you are. The say­ing stuck in my mind. Every­one knows that you can’t change your life by sim­ply chang­ing your surroundings–and lest you have any lin­ger­ing doubt, research bears this out.  In one often-cited study, researchers found that peo­ple who believed they would be hap­pier liv­ing in Cal­i­for­nia actu­ally would not be. I couldn’t help but sus­pect that Northamp­ton might be my per­sonal Cal­i­for­nia (albeit a far chill­ier and less sunny one).

And so it went until my unhap­pi­ness reached the point that even an unlikely option seemed worth the risk. I didn’t know what else to do. Plus, I couldn’t help thinking—or at least hoping—that a move might serve as a jump start.

I was encour­aged to find some sup­port for this notion in jour­nal­ist Mal­colm Gladwell’s Out­liers: The Story of Suc­cess. There, Glad­well recounts the story of Roseto, Penn­syl­va­nia, a bustling self-sufficient town estab­lished in the nine­teenth cen­tury by immi­grants from a sin­gle Ital­ian vil­lage. In the 1950s, a physi­cian dis­cov­ered that the town’s res­i­dents enjoyed aston­ish­ingly good health, with men over 65 dying from heart dis­ease at half the rate of the United States as a whole, and with death rates from all causes 30% to 35% lower than expected. After sig­nif­i­cant research aimed at con­trol­ling for variables–diet, genet­ics, exercise–researchers con­cluded that, remark­ably enough, res­i­dents’ health could be traced to noth­ing more than the fab­ric of town life, with its rich social bonds and traditions.

Maybe I was grasp­ing at straws, but this seemed promis­ing. It seemed to sug­gest that while “mov­ing to Cal­i­for­nia” might not in itself boost hap­pi­ness, the sense of belong­ing to a vibrant com­mu­nity could have a pro­found impact. The more I thought about it, the more con­vinced I became that this made total sense. After all, wasn’t it likely that I’d be hap­pier in a place that I knew and loved, sur­rounded by peo­ple I cared about and who cared about me?

More­over, I was able to gar­ner research to back me up. Again and again, close rela­tion­ships with fam­ily and friends have been shown to be one of the strongest proven pre­dic­tors of happiness.

Reader, I moved.

And as I approach my one-year anniver­sary in Northamp­ton, I’m delighted to tell you that I am indeed far, far hap­pier than I was before. While the move cer­tainly hasn’t fixed everything—I’m still look­ing for work, still look­ing for love—I’m deeply grate­ful for my life here. Along with the wel­come infu­sion of human warmth and con­nec­tion, I cher­ish the tex­ture of daily life: stop­ping by the farm down the street to pick up eggs, play­ing board games with my friends’ kids, work­ing with Friends of Chil­dren and Tree­house, local orga­ni­za­tions doing cutting-edge work aimed at trans­form­ing the nation’s fos­ter care sys­tem. The list goes on.

The moral of the story? Chang­ing your sur­round­ings won’t nec­es­sar­ily change your life. But then again: It might.