An extremely effective (and common) way to guarantee one’s unhappiness is to live in a state of self-imposed chronic deprivation. Let me illustrate with a (rather trivial) example.
On a recent Saturday, I attended a memorial service for a friend. At the after-party, I ran into my friend Kyle who I hadn’t spoken to in many weeks. When I asked how he was, he said “good” and explained he had had knee surgery and showed me a well-healed scar. He said he was now able to run, and ran 5 miles 3 times a week. But he looked quite disappointed (and apologetic) saying this and explained that he wasn’t always good about running the 5 miles and sometimes skipped running altogether. I responded, “Kyle, please realize the universe doesn’t give a sh*t how far you run or if you run at all.” Since we were there to memorialize a man who died before his time, leaving a grieving family, I think I was in the mood for telling it like it is. I continued, “By universe, I mean me: How much you run doesn’t affect my relationship with you. I’m sure your wife doesn’t care either; she cares whether you’re happy or stressed, but your running is not directly important to her. What I’m saying is that the only person who cares about your running is you and you’re stressed because you’re only doing about 80% – I gather – of what you hoped to be doing. Your knee healed well, you’re able to run regularly, but you’re focusing on “The Gap” between what is and what should be. Let’s instead celebrate your successful surgery and recovery”. We were drinking at the time. We laughed and raised a toast.
So, that’s one example of stress and unhappiness arising from the gap between one’s reality and one’s expectations towering over that reality. And there we are, always looking up, chronically falling short, living in self-imposed deprivation.
I know, of course, that there is a lot of real pain and adversity in the world. After all, I was attending a memorial for a friend who died a painful death. That’s even more reason not to add onto that true adversity with unnecessary and sometimes trivial disappointments.
Here are more ways of making yourself miserable:
- Compare yourself to peers and feel envy
- Make ambitious plans, fall short of them, and feel like a failure
- Focus on the better, richer, slimmer future you and fall into despair when you experience setbacks on the road to that version of yourself
- Focus on your past, realize all the opportunities you missed, and feel regret
What all these items have in common is “The Gap” between what is and what should be, and between what was and what should have been. The Gap is ubiquitous. It might be fair to say that there are times in life in which we move in and live in that gap.
How do we resolve this “Living in The Gap” problem? We’re probably all ambitious – I know I am – and I don’t want to stop having plans, especially grand and ambitious plans. So, what can be done? Here are three things that work for me.
Let me tell you another little story. On the day following my conversation with Kyle, I was walking up from the beach with my 11-year-old son. He was tired and started complaining about the big age gap between him and his older sisters. He said we should have had him sooner. I burst out laughing and said, “Well, we might have had a child sooner, but it wouldn’t have been you – you know, a different sperm, different egg, different circumstance! So, let’s be happy that it ended up being you, that everything occurred at just the right time and in the right way.”
That pretty much sums up my life philosophy. If I’m ever down or overwhelmed, I remind myself that I (and everyone dear to me) beat the odds of non-being. I imagine the possibly infinite number of human beings that might have been but weren’t, aren’t, and never will be. If you believe in God, then every day Thank God, Thank God, and Thank God again for this gift of life. If you don’t believe in a creator God, then thank the universe. Irrespective of a person’s theological beliefs, everyone can feel blessed for being.
I think we would all benefit from celebrating more – big things and little things. Both work and personal life move so quickly it’s easy to forget to pause and celebrate the completion of a project or other accomplishment. Also, as psychiatrists, it makes sense to celebrate our patients’ achievements, too. A note of caution though: some patients are uncomfortable celebrating because they fear relapses and setbacks, and don’t want to jinx themselves by celebrating good things that have happened. I usually say something to the effect of “Let’s celebrate your success. It may last or it may not, but it is here today, and that’s enough to stop and appreciate it”. It takes the pressure off.
This Stoic technique involves imagining negative outcomes, thereby “inoculating” yourself against the fear of their occurrence. I don’t have to do too much imagining these days: I’m at that stage in life where I now have friends and acquaintances dying every year. This makes it easy to imagine myself developing a serious illness and dying within a year. This, in turn, gives me a certain urgency and fearlessness about pursuing my life goals. It functions as an alternative to focusing on The Gap. I don’t beat myself up over my shortcomings but continue to strive to make every day’s activities meaningful and good, and count my blessings each and every day.
Until next time.
“Do not spoil what you have by desiring what you have not; remember that what you now have was once among the things you only hoped for.”
“We can complain because rose bushes have thorns, or rejoice because thorns have roses.”
“Walk as if you are kissing the Earth with your feet.”
Thich Nhat Hanh
“Piglet noticed that even though he had a Very Small Heart, it could hold a rather large amount of Gratitude.”
A.A. Milne, Winnie-the-Pooh