How Does a Person Build a Fulfilling Life?

That's the question that has haunted me for years. Decades even. I wondered it as I read Laura Ingalls Wilder books during my childhood, wondered it afresh as I wandered from college to grad school dropout to unemployed-but-I-know-where-I-want-to-live, and I wonder it still. Every day. In fact, I've been contemplating "how does a person build a fulfilling life?" so much lately that I haven't been able to write one word on the topic. Hence the recent radio silence on this blog (for the first time in 1.5 years!).

I'm currently being forced to put into practice everything I've spent years considering, writing about, and researching. My life is undergoing seismic shifts:  new career path for my husband, new work opportunities for me, moving to a new home [current status = our house is under contract to be sold and we can't find a house we want to buy...yikes]. It's a lot like...hmmm....being 20something all over again. Even though I just hit my 36th birthday. Proof positive that life is all about cycles of change and stability, forever and always, until the day we die.

When things are getting all shaken up, THAT'S when we need to be most intentional and present about building a life that we'll find fulfilling and valuable. But what exactly does that entail? That's a question we each have to answer for ourselves, and the question that has filled my mind much more than it has filled blank pages of late.

I trust that my "stability" period is coming down the pike and I'll finally be able to process in words all that I'm currently experiencing. But that time is not yet, so this blog will remain quiet for a while longer. (Which may be just fine with you!!!)

If you would like a little something to read over, though, check out the terrific interview Cassie Paton at Witty Title Here recently conducted with me. We chat about all things creativity, entrepreneurship and - indeed - creating a fulfilling life. I'm grateful to her for getting me out of my head and down on a page for a few moments!

I don't have the answers. No one does. We're all just rubber balls bouncing around this nutty thing called life...and I'm really bouncing at the moment! If nothing else, we'll have a lot of grounds for commiseration when I return because I know that if you're reading this blog, you're there, too.

May we all bounce to the right place for us.

4 Fear-Taming Techniques (Personally Tested, No Less!)


What do you do when fear reaches out from our midsection and takes over your entire being? If you're anything like me, what you want to do is curl up in a ball, watch marathon sessions of New Girl, and not talk to a single soul. For days.

(Hence why this site has been so quiet this week...Putting my safe-haven of a house on the market is apparently not good for my writer's soul.)

What we have to do, though, is tame the fear. And keep walking on.

As we've discussed in the past, there is no such thing as "conquering fear" or being "fearless." Ha, if only.

In reality, people who look fearless simply live with the fears and act despite them...which means their fears are tame enough to allow them to function! (That "I can't even think about what I want for dinner because scary thoughts are consuming me" feeling doesn't cut it.)

So here's what I do - and am very much currently doing - when fear and worry get the best of me. I call it the "EFWA strategy." (Doesn't quite roll off the tongue, does it?!)

1.  Go EASY On Yourself - for a Day or Two

While the New Girl marathon may not be all that productive in the long haul, it's important to quiet the drill sargeant within us the first couple of days after fear strikes.

Instead of berating ourselves - "What do you think you're doing? You're going to give up? Just like that? What kind of pansy are you?" - we need to take a different tack during our early days in Fear Central.

Think about it:  when we were kids and had scary things happening in our life - like getting on the school bus for the first time or going to our first sleepover - how did we want our parents to react?

Did we want them to immediately start telling us "get over yourself and just do it!" I sure didn't.

What we wanted first was a hug and some affirmation that fear is normal in those situations.

We wanted to feel comforted first and foremost. THEN we could move on to bucking up and doing the activity despite the fear.

Bottomline:  Don't shortchange the scared child that's inside each of us. Give her or him the comfort deserved, while trusting that the will to move forward will follow closely behind.

2.  Put the FEARS In Writing

After we've felt comforted, it's time to face the fear head on.

We need to ask the questions:  Why am I afraid?  What are the components that are freaking me out?

Then we need to write those suckers down.

For instance, if you're thinking about leaving your job, the component fears may be:

  • FEAR:  I won't find anything else I like.
  • FEAR:  My family will think I'm crazy.
  • FEAR:  I won't have enough money.

I use this "fear-writing" technique with my coaching clients all the time - and at first it freaks them out.

"You want me to tell you exactly what I'm afraid of when I say I'm afraid of starting a business?" one client asked.

"Yes," I said. "As fully and concretely as you can."

She paused. "But I don't want to know that."

This (very common) response makes me want to chuckle - even when it's me thinking it (and believe me, I was thinking it all last week). We are in such denial! How come we think that fears that remain inchoate and unclear are better than those written down on paper in front of us?

Here's how I see it:  fears we haven't put into words are like a virus that can infiltrate every cell of our body. They take over our existence, and we can't even tell exactly where or what they are.

Fears we fully process by putting them in black-and-white, however, are like a localized wound. Sure they hurt like crazy and dealing with them might not be easy, but at least we can identify their location. That's more than half the challenge.

So do the painful act of writing the fears out. As fully as you can muster.

Trust me:  you'll feel better for it.

3. Lay Out WORST CASE Scenarios

Now that we know exactly what we're fearing, we can take it one (scary) step further and write down the worst thing that can happen related to each fear.

Take it to an extreme - I seriously mean worst case.

Why? Because your mind is thinking about these worst cases even if you're consciously trying to ignoring them. The worst cases are what are waking you up at 3am and making you pop Tums like they're Jolly Ranchers.

The worst cases are there, even if you don't want to see them.

It's time to let 'em loose.

Continuing the example of leaving a job:

  • FEAR:  I won't find anything else I like.
    • WORST CASE:  I'll be miserable for the rest of my life and feel like nothing I did was worthwhile.
  • FEAR:  My family will think I'm crazy.
    • WORST CASE:  They'll disown me and never speak to me again.
  • FEAR:  I won't have enough money.
    • WORST CASE:  I end up homeless and without food, and will wither away and die.

I told you they were extreme!

Notice that the worst cases tend to look quite laughable once we put them in writing. What are the odds that any of these worst case scenarios will happen? For most of us fortunate souls living in developed nations, about the same as being struck by lightning.

When we realize that each worst case is highly unlikely - and that you could even survive many of them, regardless of their extreme nature - the power of the fear has been sapped.

4.  Determine an ANTIDOTE for Each Fear

Now that the fear is on its knees, it's time to deliver the knock-out punch:  articulating a concrete plan for working through each fear.

It usually helps to have a friend or coach walk us through "antidote-finding" because sometimes the strategies that are right in front of us tend to impossible to see ourselves.

Here's a generic example, for which the antidotes could vary greatly depending on the person's personality and details of the job change situation:

  • FEAR:  I won't find anything else I like.
    • WORST CASE:  I'll be miserable for the rest of my life and feel like nothing I did was worthwhile.
      • ANTIDOTE:  Identify 10 things I currently do that feel worthwhile, such as running, spending time with my grandma, and talking to my childhood best friend on the phone. I'll then create a plan for doing these things on a regular basis. That way even if my work life doesn't pan out for a while, I'll be actively creating life satisfaction in other areas of my life.
  • FEAR:  My family will think I'm crazy
    • WORST CASE:  They'll disown me and never speak to me again.
      • ANTIDOTE:  Sit down with each family member individually and ask about his or her path to today's career. Talk about fears and big changes that person made related to work, and then begin to discuss how my feelings relate to their past. It may only be the start of a dialogue, but it'll be a good start.
  • FEAR:  I won't have enough money.
    • WORST CASE:  I end up homeless and without food, and will wither away and die.
      • ANTIDOTE:  Get 100% clear on my budget:  precisely how much do I need each month to cover costs? Are there places I can shave expenses? How much money do I have in savings, and how many months worth of shaved expenses would that cover? Do I need to stay in the job a bit longer to provide the sort of savings cushion that would cover enough months to make me feel comfortable?

Does it take work to tame fears using EFWA? Absolutely.

But I'll tell you this from the fear-wracked place I currently sit:  it takes a whole lot less energy than letting fears run their course.

Now I want to hear from you:  What strategies keep you moving when fear threatens to paralyze you?

Photo Credit: BombDog

The Dark Side of Pursuing Meaningful Work: Welcome to Sacrifice City


I'm a rather upbeat person. A glance at virtually anything I've authored tells that story. That said, I'm also a firm believer in truth, and sometimes "upbeat" and "truth" conflict.

Today is one of those days.

Welcome to your personal tour of Sacrifice City.

A Lifestyle Choice

First, a clarification:  when I encourage the pursuit of meaningful work on this site, I am, in essence, endorsing a lifestyle choice.

The search for and retention of a life filled with purpose and deep life satisfaction isn't some fad diet we pick up and try for 10 days to see if it'll fit. On the contrary, such a life arises from consistent and committed choices made over the course of hard-fought decades.

I wouldn't support this lifestyle if I didn't deeply believe it is worth having. Every single piece of data I can get my hands on - including my summated first person experiences - indicates it's the way to go:

But anything worth having comes with sacrifice.

And right now, I'm feeling it.

Benefits, Meet Cost

Staying true to my upbeat nature, though, let's first consider the benefits I've gained through a commitment to meaningful working - and living. Benefits I believe any of us can reap, if we want to badly enough.

  • Freedom
    • The following questions make me pause long and hard whenever they're answered:
      • Who's your boss?
      • What are your work hours?
      • How many sick and vacation days do you get a year?
      • What's your work phone number? (I honestly have no clue - who the heck uses the phone these days?)
    • Not being able to readily provide a straight answer to those questions = freedom (to me, at least)
  • Autonomy
    • Related to freedom, autonomy goes one step further, into the moment-by-moment decisions of my day. I pick what I want to do when. Some tasks are non-negotiable - like, say, grading papers and exams - but precisely when they get done on a given day is up for grabs.
  • Purpose-driven sense of mission
    • In contrast to the work-structure questions I can't answer, there is one question I can answer without pause:  "Why?"  Ask me why I'm doing just about anything in my life and I have an answer. A personally meaningful, deep-seated answer. That's not for nothing.
  • Concentrated time with my family
    • Researchers find that 100% of respondents say "relationships" create meaning in their lives. 100%! In a society where we can't agree whether we prefer the cookie or the cream in an Oreo, that finding seems pretty compelling. So my husband and I have both made conscious decisions to maximize family time, including taking jobs that give us summers off (and thereby foregoing the many better-paying and potentially satisfying jobs that don't meet this requirement) and choosing to turn down freelance and coaching gigs (athletic for him, career for me) to have late afternoons together year-round.

Good stuff, right? Absolutely. I'd make the same decisions a thousand times over to gain what I'm so fortunate to currently have.

And yet.

Yet there comes the moment of reckoning when you have to look hard in the face at all you've sacrificed to get what you have.

We're talking here, of course, about the ol' four-letter word that always accompanies benefits:  cost.

Meaning or Money?

Without a doubt, the most notable cost for my life's many benefits is money. The big buckaroo. The almighty dollar. The smacking smackaroney.

Wait, that last one didn't make sense.

The point is, there's a whole heck of a lot I'm not going to have in life because I'm so committed to meaningful, purposeful living. And sometimes it makes me downright ill.

At this very moment we're preparing our house to go on the market and searching for a new home in a community with strong schools and highly engaged parents.

Shorthand:  we want to move to a place where a good deal of money is flying around.

Put another way:  we're looking to move where we can't afford to be.

Speaking of which, here's a great way to get acquainted with meaningful working/living costs:  Spend a Sunday afternoon house hunting. Drive by the houses that are too "low-income" to warrant an open house. Step inside the "fixers" you can barely afford. Then torture yourself a bit by visiting a house $100K or so outside of your price range. Before long, "meaning", "freedom", "autonomy" and "family time" become a jumble of nonsense words an infant spews out at the dinner table.

Seriously, as of last night I wanted to take my high-values, eye-on-the-big-picture, creating-a-life-I'll-respect self and shake the bejesus out of her, screaming, "go off and finally accept a fricking job that'll pay you what you're worth and will enable you to afford a house in which you and your kin can stand upright in the bedrooms!"

Man alive!

[Note:  Is this a first world problem? Abso-total-lutely. I get that. I see that. I feel gratitude for that. And now on with my (extremely common) first world crisis.]

We've occasionally touched on money at Working Self in the past - most directly in Money and Happiness: What's the Right Balance? and less so in the recent How to Pursue Creative Passions While Paying the Bills - but I don't write about money often because I honestly don't think about money often. Again, an amazingly fortunate situation, I know.

To be clear, it's not that I don't think about it because I have so much of it - cue the laughing cat there - it's because I don't typically see the value of beyond-basic-needs money.

I learned early on that the best way to stay true to a meaningful lifestyle is to steer clear of commercial traps like, say, the mall, or magazine ads, or, well, just about any public place in our society.

Before you think I'm a major hermit (!), I should clarify that I steer clear mentally. We did visit the mall this weekend, for instance, but I didn't set foot in a single store or browse in a single window. We were there for the food court, the Easter bunny, and the carousel, thank you very much. (And even at that, it would've been much cheaper to stay home.)

Bottomline:  when I don't look at all I'm not able to have, I don't realize what I'm missing. That way the benefits are free to loom large and splendorous in my mind, enabling me to continue to make the tough calls in life, like turning down a ten-thousander in exchange for some quality family time.

The real estate search, however, unavoidably flips this whole approach on its head.

The Final Reel

Why am I bothering to tell you all of this? Truth in advertising.

You need to know what you're choosing when you say, "I want a job that feels meaningful." Or, "I want to create a life I can feel proud of." Or, "I want to make a difference."

What are you willing to sacrifice to have those things? Seriously:  how much are you willing to give?

There is no "half in." You either pick the path ripe with freedom, autonomy and purpose, or you're a slave to the clock and the dollar. (Show me the lucrative, fulfilling part-time job that you can get without sacrificing your morals and I'll change my take on that.)

Bottomline:  we have to be 100% clear on that answer before starting pursuit of a life filled with meaning and life satisfaction, or else our commitment to the path will prove as steady as Russell Brand's commitment to Katy Perry.

Intentionally and actively creating a meaningful life necessitates looking at the whole picture - the entire, un-airbrushed, ugly cracks spidering from the edges sort of picture - and considering whether we've truly got the stomach for it.

Maybe in your case what feels meaningful will also happen to be lucrative. Kudos on your luck, if so.

For most of us, however, the path that picks us can cover the bills (and only after some major strategic tweaking), but it ain't gonna buy us the house we always imagined our children growing up in within the sort of neighborhood where parents invest time and energy into being present and aware.

I trust that my future self won't care about the latter part of that sentence. I trust that she'll review her life and think of the memories made within the walls of the ranch house she never wanted, not the "cozy" square footage encased within those walls. I trust that she'll know she conducted the right cost-benefit analysis for her and her family, and will have great dignity and integrity about her choices.

My current self, though? The one who wants a hit of in-the-moment pleasure now and again?

Quite honestly, she's feeling quite blue.

And that, my friends, is the whole picture.

Photo Credit: DecoDesignCenter.com

You Don't Have to Be a Do-Gooder to Do Meaningful Work

Which of the following is more meaningful?

  1. A teaching job at an inner-city middle school.
  2. A real estate job in a well-off suburb.

Did you pick one?

Great. Then you're wrong. (Don't worry, I'm not this sadistic when I teach. Well, pretty much...)

The actual answer is hidden choice #3, the beaut we all remember from our days of multiple-choice agony:  "This question cannot be answered based on the information provided."

As much as I despise that answer choice, in this case it's true.

We can't determine which of these two jobs - or any set of jobs - is more "meaningful." Meaning is defined by the individual doing the work. Without insight into what a person's thinking, we have no more business judging it's "meaningfulness" than we do Kim Kardashian's decision to have kids with Kanye West (although, yea, she's cray-cray).

Worth versus Meaning

I've recently learned that some of my friends shy away from coming to this site. They say things like, "my work isn't that meaningful..." or "what I do doesn't really matter..."

While they may very well be using these excuses to hide their hatred of my writing (!), their comments nonetheless bring an important point to mind:  too often our society confuses meaningful work with worthwhile work.

I suspect this may be holding many of you back, too. It certainly used to be a huge stumbling block for me.

Sure, there may be some societal standards for what's "worthwhile" work. Perhaps we could agree on a rank order for how valuable jobs are to the greater good. In that case, #1 above is the clear winner out of the two.

What matters to our well-being, though - and, in turn, to how kind, productive, and engaged we are in life - is not the worth of the job, but how meaningful our work feels to us.

Perhaps an anecdote would be helpful here.

A Case Study in Valuing Worthiness Over Meaningfulness

A number of years ago I had a student who chose the aforementioned inner-city middle school position.

What a grand gesture of generosity, we say. What a stellar show of service. What a marvelous mark of magnanimity.

What a bum bid for burnout.

This student was not intrinsically motivated to teach. If you'd sat her down and asked her to get clear on her preferred skills, personality type, and her values, the resulting document would've read something like:  "Red flag! Not meant to be a teacher!"

This isn't to say that she didn't have the makings of a great teacher. Oh sure, she was sociable and warm and dedicated and driven. She sailed through the organization's interviews precisely because she put on the great front of what a successful teacher-to-be should be.

Yet this student hadn't chosen education as her field of academic study. She hadn't ever mentioned teaching in our countless advising meetings. Heck, she didn't even like it when I asked her and her peers to teach one another about various chapters of a book. This doesn't make her a "bad" person, no more than her dark hair does. It's just who she is.

Truth be told, she'd rather have been studying landscape architecture, changing the aesthetics of the world one gorgeous, resource-friendly courtyard at a time.

At this point you might argue, what's the harm in someone undertaking a noble effort, even if it's not driven by their core self?

To which I'd argue, the harm is that someone in that position will likely provide service very briefly and in ways that aren't what the recipients genuinely deserve. British proverb check here:  "Better untaught than ill taught."

This former student did try her best at her teaching job, as she had at every endeavor of her life to date, but by mid-year she confided that her "best" was about 60% of what she was probably capable. She just couldn't get herself to give any more.

Meanwhile she began suffering from endless colds, insomnia, and overwhelming fatigue. She felt adrift and directionless, and worried that if she couldn't make a go of this "meaningful job" (her words), what would she ever do of any value in her life?

That's when I said:  "You'll go and design landscapes, that's what."

She brushed me off at the time - silly, crazy professor - but after her two-year stint in the schools, she came to that very realization herself while drifting from one stopgap job to another.

In an email she wrote, "I'm coming to think it's better to do something that matters to me than something that matters to 'the world.' Maybe that's how I'll actually make a difference. As counter-intuitive as that sounds."

You Determine Your Work's Meaning

She was onto something:  as we defined in the past, purpose is about finding something that is meaningful to yourself and that extends beyond yourself.

That means that as long as you're not navel-gazing, any endeavor that has meaning to you will provide you with purpose.

Imagine how incredible our world would be if everyone were wandering around full of purpose and pride? Who cares what they'd actually be creating or producing (as long as it's not brutally detrimental, of course); the sheer energy of humanity taking on purposeful projects would form a greater good in and of itself.

Where that "meaningful to self" element comes from, we honestly don't know - perhaps early experiences, perhaps genetics, perhaps some other source entirely - but it doesn't matter. If you long to create terraced grounds that encourage conservation and cultural identity, so be it. Don't fight that longing. Embrace it.

And if you can't embrace it - if you're stuck in a path that you wouldn't necessarily have chosen but can't readily escape - the distinction between "value" and "meaning" means that you can still create meaning right where you are, one step at a time. Even the least "worthwhile" job can be a source of great purpose and meaning if you let it.

So if you've ever bowed your head in shame when reading articles on this site, or the myriad others that call for "meaningful work" and "meaningful careers," it's time to lift that chin up high. You belong here as much as the next guy.

When it comes down to it, meaningfulness is determined by you and you alone.

So get your meaningful work on already!

Now I want to hear from you:  Do you agree that meaningfulness is self-defined? Or do you think we can determine it as a society?

Do You Allow Yourself to Experience Joy in Its Full Force?


When was the last time you fully experienced joy? I don't mean a happy moment or a day of ready smiles or even a knee-slapping evening with friends.

I'm talking the intense, clarifying, vulnerable experience of joy. The emotion that, in order to be experienced in its fullest, requires us to be at our most emotionally mature.

As sociologist Brene Brown writes in Daring Greatly, "Having spent several years studying what it means to feel joyful, I'd argue that joy is probably the most difficult emotion to really feel."

Yet if we want to live a rich life - and fully pursue meaningful work - we must learn to experience joy. In all its powerful, overwhelming, humbling force.

Joy versus Pleasure

First, we must distinguish between the easy emotion of pleasure and the difficult emotion of joy, which are too often used interchangeably.

"A lot of people seem to feel that joy is only the most intense version of pleasure, arrived at by the same road - you simply have to go a little further down the track. That has not been my experience."  - author Zadie Smith in The New York Review of Books

Smith goes on to note that joy is a far more complex emotion than pleasure, and may even involve some negative components, including terror, pain and delight.

Joy, as far as I can tell, is the full acceptance of the emotion of the present moment, without making demands about exactly what that emotional moment entails.

This matches Eckhart Tolle's take on joy versus pleasure:

"Pleasure is always derived from something outside you, whereas joy arises from within." - Eckhart Tolle

In other words, pleasure comes to us by chance, but joy comes to us by choice.

Why Joy Scares Us

This choice, however, is not easy to make.

According to Brene Brown in Daring Greatly, joy involves great "uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure."

To guard against this sense of vulnerability, she found that many of us experience "foreboding joy," or planning for disaster. About 80% of the people she interviewed had an experience of simultaneously experiencing great joy and being flooded with terrible images of that moment being taken away.

Brown explains foreboding joy this way:

"We're trying to beat vulnerability to the punch. We don't want to be blindsided by hurt. We don't want to be caught off-guard, so we literally practice being devastated or never move from self-elected disappointment."

She goes on to describe the source of foreboding joy:

"Scarcity and fear drive foreboding joy. We're afraid that the feeling of joy won't last, or that there won't be enough, or that the transition to disappointment will be too difficult. We've learned that giving in to joy is, at best, setting ourselves up for disappointment and, at worst, inviting disaster. And we struggle with the worthiness issue. Do we deserve our joy, given our inadequacies and imperfections? What about the starving children and the war-ravaged world? Who are we to be joyful?"

We must learn to get past this, both for the sake of our lives as a whole and for the sort of work we strive to create on this site.

Why Accepting Joy is Key to Meaningful Work

More often than not, meaningful work comes along with a relatively low paycheck. As a result, the rewards gained from meaningful work are intangible and not subject to traditional calculations.

One of the most powerful of those rewards is joy.

Brene Brown found that one of the times people feel most vulnerable and experience foreboding joy at its highest is when they are actively loving their jobs.

This makes sense since there's little more temporary in life than work. The job that provides us purpose and identity can be stripped from us in an instant due to economic downturns, a fickle boss, or other factors beyond our control.

Yet we have no choice but to embrace this reality:  if we don't allow ourselves to experience joy in its full force, we're subjected to all the challenges of the meaningful work without its most powerful rewards, making us prime candidates for burnout.

How sad to move on from the job or field not because it was a poor fit, but because we didn't let the experience get under our skin.

How to Accept Joy in Its Full Force

So what can we do to learn to accept joy?

According to Brown, gratitude is the great "antidote to foreboding joy."

"If the opposite of scarcity is enough, then practicing gratitude is how we acknowledge that there's enough and that we're enough." - Brene Brown

Some of her suggestions for practicing gratitude include:

  • Keeping a gratitude journal.
  • Starting a gratitude jar.
  • Recognizing joy in the small, ordinary moments, where joy tends to be housed.
  • Literally saying to yourself, as Brown does, "vulnerability, vulnerability" when you feel foreboding joy strike. Then forcing yourself to think, "I'm grateful for..." and filling in the blank genuinely.
  • Recognizing and accepting that we can never prepare for loss and it's a waste of time, effort, and good moments to do so.

The quotation that struck me the most from the entirety of Brown's Daring Greatly spoke to that last point:

"I used to think that the best way to go through life was to expect the worst. That way, if it happened, you were prepared, and if it didn't happen, you were pleasantly surprised. Then I was in a car accident and my wife was killed. Needless to say, expecting the worst didn't prepare me at all. And worse, I still grieve for all of those wonderful moments we shared that I didn't fully enjoy."

Let that not be us. This holiday season, lean into your joy. There's no better time to start embracing the good things in life and work than when the world is celebrating alongside us.

Do you know someone who has difficulty accepting joy in their lives? Then please pass this article along.


Now I want to hear from you:  How do you allow yourself to experience joy in its full force? Do you have any gratitude practices that help with this process?


Photo Credit: Pink Sherbet Photography

Forget the Pursuit of Happiness!


Happiness is overrated. We think rushing around to find the next pleasurable hit is a good plan...until the hits stop coming, or don't prove to be big enough.

So what's the alternative? Meaning, of course.

But, to be honest with you, a meaningful life can feel pretty darn dismal at times. Without the pleasure hits, we might be building a fulfilling legacy, but feeling crummy in the moment!

What to do?

Find out in my guest post on elephant journal:  Meaningful Life or Happy Life? Take Your Pick!

This is my first BIG guest post - and I need your help to make it a success. Please swarm over there to read, COMMENT and share!

(PS - If we hit 1500 views, we get on the "popular lately" section of the site, increasing the odds of a like-minded person meandering over here, to our corner of the web, enriching all of our lives. Can we make it happen?!) [UPDATE: We did it - and within 24 hours, no less! Thanks for reading, sharing and commenting!]

Check out the article!



The Best Time to Show Gratitude is In Our 20s and 30s


What if I told you we have a super power in our 20s and early 30s? What if you learned that this power is now at its peak and will recede with each passing decade?

What if you discovered that because of this power, we can attain one of our deepest-held goals in the here and now?

I'd imagine you'd want to identify and harness that power...or at least I'd hope you would!

So here's the big reveal:  Our super power is <drum roll please> gratitude.

And if we don't use that awesome super power now, we may regret the oversight later.

Who to Thank

First, the big mistake:  showing gratitude only to our favorites. Favorite coach. Favorite teacher. Favorite wacky librarian who strongly resembled Ms. Frizzle.

Good start.

But only a start.

What about that teacher who stayed long after school to help you master long division, or that coach who invited you over his house for dinners, or that mentor who came in early – leaving his young children behind – to spend time prepping you for your big meeting? These people all went beyond their job duties to invest in you.

They may not emerge in your mind as your “favorite” for myriad reasons – personality disconnects, the passage of time, a bad parting. But does that make their investment any less significant or worthy of appreciation?

Although someone may not be your favorite influencer, you may be their favorite investment.

Don't they deserve some credit? <Click to share this thought>

How to Show Gratitude

Which begs the question, how to give said credit.

After teaching college for ten years, I can tell you definitively how not to demonstrate gratitude:  By sending an email filled with effusive praise...followed by the request for a favor (e.g., a reference).

Um, no.

That's called manipulation, not gratitude.

Yet 95% of the "thank you notes" I receive take this exact form. Not because millennials are entitled or narcissistic or any such generational sputum. Because they're human - busy and forgetful. Every generation is guilty of the same.

It's one thing if you've previously demonstrated gratitude and THEN come back months or years later asking for assistance. Influencers are more than happy to oblige. But don't go radio silent for five years and then show up all full of "appreciation" because you need something.

On the positive side, here is the best way to demonstrate appreciation:  through as much "deed over word" as you can muster.

A non-requesting note is terrific. An in-person visit is even better. An invitation to a special event - graduation party, wedding, baby shower - is best yet.

Wait? Infuencers want to be invited to gift-bearing events? Isn't that like requesting a favor?

Yes, they do, and no, it's not.

Invitations are gifts in themselves. It's hard to remember this during the 20s and early 30s, when invitations are so abundant it feels like money is being sucked straight out of our pockets into silver-plated gifts and tacky outfits.

This period of abundance will end, though. And soon. Milestone, made-to-party events are a developmental patch that waxes then wanes, much like sleepover parties and all-nighters and binge-drink-a-thons.

In other words, it's likely your influencers' mailboxes aren't exactly overflowing with invitations.

Besides, even if your influencers happen to be the most popular people on the planet, if they took the time to invest in you, you are who they want to celebrate.

Which is exactly why invitations are the ultimate form of gratitude. Invitations aren't burdens, doled out to poor suckers who feel obligated to buy something for you. They are offers to share in your joy. They're a note saying, "You mean enough to me that I want you there when I celebrate a milestone in my life."

This is exactly what influencers want most:  to see you thrive in life. Seeing you doing well is the great pay off on their investment.

What does it cost you, really?

(Psst - If you're worried about the concrete financial cost - which I hope you're not... - influencers tend to be in a much better financial position than your gaggle of friends. Put bluntly: you'll likely come out ahead. Far ahead.)

Gratitude Enables You to Make a Difference...Now

Not only does showing gratitude not cost you too much, it actually pays you:  saying thanks enables you to meet one of your deepest-held goals. In the here and now.

That goal is "making a difference," cited in study after study as millennials' deep desire.

To be clear:  we influencers don't take our jobs expecting a “thank you." Nor do we imagine we’ll ever need a “thank you” to keep us going.

Yet as reality settles in and we start to feel like we’re reaching about 1% of the population with which we work, it's easy to lose faith in our worldview.

Especially when the 1% don’t seem to recognize our efforts, either.

This is to say, by contacting an influencer and making a genuine gesture of appreciation, you don’t know what crisis of confidence you may be averting. You don’t know whether you might be contacting that influencer at the precise right moment to make them say, “oh thank goodness, I am doing something. This is just what I needed right now.”

Yours may be the letter or visit or invitation that enables the teacher/coach/mentor to buck up and go on to influence countless others.

As a result, in your act of gratitude, you become an influencer all your own, creating ripples that extend far beyond the one person you actively appreciated.

On an even larger scale, if you give away what you hope to one day receive, you contribute to a culture that provides ongoing fuel for investments in others.

If you hope for recognition in your future, you have to be willing to give it in your present. <Click to Tweet>

You Don't Have Forever

By now you may be thinking, "This is all well and good, but I'm so busy right now. When life calms down, I'll get around to showing gratitude."

First:  HA! Life calms down! HA! Keep dreaming.

Secondly:  Your influencers may not be around by the time you remember to thank them.

Not only can the random events of life snatch your influencers away - like my husband's beloved grade school principal who died not long ago in a car accident on his way to work - but odds of mortality increase with age. Of course.

And let's face it:  your grade school influencers? They're getting up there now. Because (shh...), you're not exactly a spring chicken yourself any more.

Case in point:  I had the opportunity to invite my grade school talented-and-gifted teacher to my college graduation, not only to attend, but to hear me give a brief speech about her work and to receive an award.

That opportunity reconnected us after a decade of silence. We then began corresponding with hand-written notes, visiting occasionally, and sharing my wedding day together.

She has since died of Alzheimer’s.

What at the time felt like an act of recognition for her now feels like an amazing gift to myself. It’s a moment I could not regain if I’d taken longer to recognize her influence on me.

Gratitude is a A Gift To Ourselves

Which leads to my final point:  if you don't want to show gratitude for the sake of others, then at least demonstrate it for the sake of yourself.

As the uber-viral Soul Pancake video on gratitude demonstrates well, showing appreciation makes our lives happier, more satisfying and more meaningful. Sharing appreciation also reduces anxiety and depression, helps us sleep better, makes us more resilient, and strengthens relationships.

In other words, giving thanks provides the very feelings we search long and hard for on this site.

I can attest to this first hand. While I no longer can extend an invitation to my influencers - my milestone events have come and gone - I still reap the rewards of having done so:  Ever since she was a baby, my three-year-old daughter has whiled away hours playing with the albums of casual photos taken at our wedding.  In the past few months she has taken to coming up to me with the albums and asking, “who’s that?” Through this unplanned activity, I’ve had the occasion to tell her about my deceased grade school teacher, my now-retired physics professor, and my influential psychology professor.

Because of my demonstration of gratitude, I've gotten to share with my child the traits I admire most and concrete examples of lives that make a difference.

By looking at the wedding albums, my daughter is learning about giving and getting, about meaning and purpose, about influence and appreciation.

About, in short, all the intense, life-enriching emotions that make this life worth living.

And none of it would be possible if I'd forgotten to show gratitude while in my 20s.

Now I want to hear from you:  What influencer are you going to reach out to...today?! And whose investment have you overlooked in our society's focus on "favorites"?

Photo Credit: Jeff S. PhotoArt

Quit the Comparisons


See if you recognize yourself in this story: It's a sun-drenched day. My two-year-old daughter is swinging before me on our town playground. She whizzes through the air for tens of minutes, the wind tugging at her corkscrew curls, giggles spilling out of her like a bird chattering at the dawn of a spring morning.

She quiets only when a man and his son approach the swings. Under her intense gaze, the man lifts the boy into the rubber seat and elevates him high into the air.

"Whee!" the boy squeals when his father releases him. "More!"

The father pushes hard, causing the swing set to shake. The boy flies so high, his torso becomes horizontal to the ground. I wonder if he might flip clear over the top.

My daughter cranes around to look at me, her face contorted. "Mommy, higher," she says. "Higher!"

I try with all my might.

"Higher!" my daughter yells, looking at the boy soaring beside her. "Higher!"

I push and shove and grunt. My arms start to burn. I feel sweat breaking out on my forehead. Still, my daughter's only halving the height of the boy beside her.

"I'm sorry, sweetie," I say after many minutes. "This is as good as it gets."

With that, she bursts into tears.

The Social Comparison Scourge

Although it's been a while since you frequented a swing set, I bet you recognize yourself in my daughter's reaction. Especially if you're a millennial. As Paul Angone says in 101 Secrets for Your Twenties:

"Obsessive Comparison Disorder is the smallpox of our generation."

How could it not be, given the omnipresence of social media?

All these social comparisons are our great undoing. They not only block us from pursuing the work we'd find meaningful, they make us more likely to experience all sorts of negative emotions including:

  • Defensiveness
  • Regret
  • Envy
  • Guilt
  • Unmet cravings
  • Lying to protect self and others
  • Loneliness

I don't want these to be my daughter's reality. That's why the swingset episode hit me like a gut punch. The only way she'll learn to quit the comparisons is if I learn to stop them myself.

But how?

I turned to the research to find out. And boy did it come through.

1.  Don't Use Social Comparisons To Make Yourself Feel Good

As I wrote in I'm Awesome. Except Next to You. And You. And You, social comparisons have an upside. They can bring us joy...IF we're the one on the swings flying higher than the kid next to us. In fact, they feel so good we get hooked on them as our source of self-worth:

Feeling crappy about your hair? Dig up that horrid Facebook photo of your friend on a humid day.

Feeling upset about your drudge job? Think of your buddy who hasn't landed a single ounce of paying work.

Feeling icky about your breakup? Check out your friend's tweets about her loser boyfriend's antics.

The problem is, using this feel-good strategy comes with a heavy price:  we end up feeling badly about ourselves most of the time.

"Frequent social comparisons may, in the short-term, provide reassurance. But in the long-term they may reinforce a need to judge the self against external standards." - Dartmouth Professor Judith White and colleagues

In other words, comparing yourself with others becomes an addiction. You end up scrambling around Facebook, desperate for a hit of "I'm rocking life compared to that person," but in the process you're exposed to a whole lot of "wow, that person is doing so much better than me."

2.  Find Happiness

This may be a bit chicken-and-egg, but if you can "find happiness," you may be less tempted to look at the boy swinging next to you. And less affected if you do.

Studies show that unhappy people make more frequent comparisons and take them more to heart, compared to happy people.

Of course we could fill 15 million posts on the question of how to "find happiness," but I'll stick with the psychology-based answer I strongly believe:  lasting happiness comes not from fleeting pleasures, but from structuring your life around endeavors that are personally meaningful and that frequently plunge you into the state of flow. That's why I advocate for creating a work life filled with purpose.

3.  Practice Mindfulness

This one gets a bit deep:  We can either view ourselves subjectively (from the inside out) or objectively (looking at ourselves as if we're an object). People who do the latter engage in more frequent social comparisons, according to research, and thus feel less content.

"Viewing one’s self objectively cuts one off from mindful experience, resulting in mindlessness. Not only are we holding the self still, in order to view it objectively, but also we are holding still the dimension on which we are making the comparison. In a mindless state, a person automatically accepts the positive or negative consequences of a social comparison." - White and colleagues

The best way to counteract mindlessness is to practice mindfulness, such as by meditating.

If you're new to mindfulness meditation - an approach that makes no spiritual claims and has been shown to decrease stress, anxiety, and blood pressure - Jon Kabat-Zinn's book Wherever You Go, There You Are is a great starting point.

Researchers note that making social comparisons may cause mindlessness, so you'll need to reconnect with a mindful viewpoint daily to keep things in check.

"In a mindful state, the same social comparison information can have a completely different meaning, and thus different consequences." - White and colleagues.

4.  Set Internal Standards for Self-Worth

Finally, getting clear on what you care about, then prioritizing your life around those values takes the punch out of social comparisons.

"People who are uncertain of their self-worth, who do not have clear, internal standards, will engage in frequent social comparisons." - White and colleagues

In other words, if you believe that "success" results from meeting YOUR goals - not the goals of your parents, friends, teachers, or "society" at large - you'll be less likely to succumb to the agony of social comparisons.

Thinking this way is a lifelong process, of course, but you can start the process today. And you should.

Because when it comes down to it, a day on the swings is always better than a day stuck at home. Regardless of who's swinging beside you.


So it all comes down to four steps. Four tangible, doable, why-not-make-these-a-priority-because-life-stinks-if-you-let-comparisons-rule-your-existence steps:

Step #1:  Don't use social comparisons to make yourself feel good. More often they'll make you feel bad.

Step #2:  Spend more time in activities that give you a sense of flow and that are personally meaningful.

Step #3:  Set aside ten minutes (or more!) to meditate daily.

Step#4:  Identify your personal priorities and work toward them, regardless of what others say you "should" do.

What do you think? Can we do it? Our futures depend on the answer.

White, J. B., Langer, E. J., Yariv, L., & Welch, J. (2006). Frequent social comparisons and destructive emotions and behaviors: The dark side of social comparisons. Journal of Adult Development, 13, 36–44.


Photo Credit: Taylor.McBride™

Chasing Seagulls: The Beauty of Unattainable Goals


On a recent foggy day, my two-year-old daughter whiled away tens of minutes chasing seagulls along a deserted expanse of beach.  She ran and giggled and clapped and squealed as the gulls swooped and alighted about her. The gulls seemed to also enjoy the game, waiting until the last minute to take to the sky, then reclaiming the same spit of land as if taunting her to try again.

She gladly followed their tease, time after time.

Until suddenly she didn’t.

Without warning, she stopped running and dropped her head to her chest. She looked oddly similar to Rosie on the Jetsons running out of power.

Fearing she was ill or injured, my husband rushed over. “What’s the matter?” he called as he ran.

She stayed silent and still until he was right beside her, then whispered, “Can't get the seagulls. Me too slow.”

My husband paused to consider how to respond to her correct observation. Then he said, “Daddy can’t catch the seagulls either. They’re too fast for any of us. But it’s still fun, isn’t it?”

The kiddo pulled her chin from her chest and looked him hard in the face. She took a deep breath and pursed her lips. Then she suddenly began running again, as if the realization had never hit her.

What Are Your Seagulls?

Do you remember the moment when you suddenly lost faith in your ability to “catch seagulls”? Maybe it was the realization that happiness is easier pursued than attained, or that a sense of purpose slips in and out of our lives like water in a lock.

Or perhaps it was something more tangible, like a career path for which you didn’t have the right aptitude, or a dreamed-of lifestyle that's always just out of reach.

For some of you, maybe that moment of realization is right now. In many respects, the quarter life crisis erupts when we recognize that our childhood vision of adulthood fails to even approximate reality. It occurs when we finally see life clearly.

Since I’m not some mystical thinker - nor even a delusional optimist – who says, “You can attain anything you want! You can create the life you hold in your mind!” here’s my "realistic optimist" position on life:

You can do much. You can do great things. But there are limits. We all know seagulls can’t be caught.

Some Things Aren't Meant to Be Caught

Obviously on a literal level, if my daughter caught a seagull, her overzealous clutches on a delicate gull’s throat would spell bad news. As would the bird’s talons on her skin.

But so too on a figurative level, seagulls should remain something we chase and never catch.

Imagine if we could “be happy” all the time. Then we’d live in a Matrix-like reality in which we long for a day of rain.

Imagine if we could have the entire life about which we now dream. Then we’d live like the jackpot lottery winners who wallow in depression and addiction, wishing for their fortune to disappear.

Imagine if we could find work that was 100% perfect 100% of the time. Then we’d have no cause to travel the world or feel sand between our toes or look our loved ones so deeply in the eyes that we see flecks of a color we never imagined could exist.

I for one am glad that the horizon looms way out there, unable to be reached. I'd hate to see the edge of the earth.

The Joy of the Chase

Unfortunately, though, all too often after our stroke of reality, we stop chasing seagulls. Unlike kids, who immediately bounce back and return to reaching for the cookie in the locked cabinet, we give up. We see our limits and think it’s somehow “rational” or “mature” to "accept" them. By which we mean, to stop striving to live beyond them.

For instance, I’ve heard countless people say variations of, “I don’t know why you put so much energy into writing about finding work that feels meaningful. I’ve given up on that. I just work to pay the bills.”

Is it hard to find purposeful, meaningful work? Hell yes. Is even the most meaningful job filled with days of drudgery and misery? Hell yes. But the pursuit is a blast. It’s an absolute frickin’ blast.

I wonder why we let ourselves forget about the joy of the chase. Why is the only goal worth pursuing one that we believe we have near certainty of eventually attaining? Why are the only quests worthy of speaking aloud those that seem "realistic" and "feasible"? Why does product so completely eclipse process?

You can create a secure life for yourself. You can create an existence in which you reach every goal that you set. It’s actually not very hard to do that.

But that’s no life I’d want to live.

I say chase the seagulls even though you’ll never catch them. Actually, because you’ll never catch them.

The most glee-filled moments of your life will be spent in their pursuit.

How to Not Be Pathetic: Stop Talking, Start Doing

Last week in a rental house along the Maine coast, I had a run-in with full-on patheticness. I’m not saying this to be judgmental. I’m saying it to be honest. And let's face it, we all could use a little honesty when it comes to being pathetic.

The Crux of the Pathetic

English: Lag BaOmer bonfire

Here’s the scene:  It’s 10pm. In the small backyard of an adjoining rental house, eight twentysomething men sit shirtless around a bonfire. They swig on beers and blast music while talking incessantly about the “chicks” they’d hook up with if they went to the local nightclub. They laugh and brag and curse and boast, endlessly rehashing the moves they’d use to “snag” the girls.

Until 2am.

Every night.

If I could have summoned my ballsy alter ego, I would have marched into the glow of their bonfire and said, “Get the hell off your asses! Why don't you parade your pathetic selves down to that night club you’re talking about that's what? A fifteen minute walk away? And go TRY some of those moves you’re talking about. Then tomorrow you’ll actually have something to talk about. No, it probably won’t be about the “chicks” you “snagged." Instead it’ll be about something that actually matters – like WHY you can’t get “chicks” and the fundamentals you need to change to make an encounter with the opposite sex actually possible.”

What makes those twentysomethings pathetic, in my mind, isn’t their redux of a B-grade college movie motif, nor even their patently offensive objectification of women.

It’s their incessant talk with no action. That’s the crux of the pathetic.

Why We Slip Into Talking Instead of Doing

I don’t hesitate to label that gang of guys pathetic because I’ve been there. Not scoping nonexistent chicks (!), but lingering in looping chatter about a life I’m about to go out and live...once I’m done talking about it. Believe me, I know pathetic intimately.

It's a common trap to fall into because talk does help to feed our goals. The problem is that it’s too darn comfortable to get stuck in the talking phase.

Let me explain by sharing my view of the goal-pursuit process:

  1. A goal enters our mind in half-baked, tentative form.
  2. We cocoon around the sliver of a goal, keeping it to ourselves. At this point we make the decision to either let it blow away in the wind of distractions and fears, or to feed it with visionary thoughts that enable it grow into something of substance.
  3. We hesitantly share the goal with one or two of our closest friends or relatives. The choice of confidants is crucial since the goal is now a tender pulsing mass that’s full of potential but can be crushed with the smallest doubting look.
  4. If the goal is not obliterated by its early reveal, the goal gains strength from the “realness” of being put out there in spoken language in the world.
  5. As the goal becomes less vulnerable, we share the goal more widely with people who are further from our inner circle of trust. This enables the goal to become even more fully real and worth working toward.
  6. Finally the goal stands before us as a living, breathing entity and we take action to pursue it.

Look back over that list and identify how many of the items involve talking about the goal.


Half the list!

And how many involve DOING?

Just one.

No wonder we get confused and stuck. Talking is crucial to goal formation and pursuit.

But that tiny 1/6th of the battle - the action stage – that’s where the money’s at.

How to Stop Talking and Start Doing

So how do you avoid being those pathetic guys on the shore, talking about a life that they aren’t bothering to try to live?

By taking an honest look at your life and doing the following:

  1. Make a list of all of your goals, large and small. What are the things that are motivating, bothering and/or consuming your thoughts right now? Those are the basis for your goals.
  2. Identify each goal’s stage. It’s unusual for all of our goals to be at the same stage simultaneously. Some you might be cocooning around, others might be half-formed, others might just be waiting to be acted upon. If you don’t know where your goals are, you can’t move them forward.
  3. Make a plan to move each goal to their next stage. And then the stage after that. And after that. If your goals have stalled – especially in the “talking” phase, the most common site for lack of progress – it’s time to give them a kick in the rear. If you’d like, my alter ego could come and tell you to “get the hell off your ass.” (Since she's much more effective in the imagination than in the physical world, feel free to borrow her. Indefinitely.)

It is a mistake to try to substitute action for talk too early in the goal-pursuit process. That said, it’s way too easy to mistake talk for action.

My rule for determining when it’s time to move from talk to action? If I've said a goal to at least five people and find that it’s not changing form, I know it’s time to stop talking and start doing.

Otherwise, it's just pathetic. And believe me, nobody wears that well. Even in the light of a bonfire.

What do you do to keep your goals moving forward? In particular, how do you turn talk into action?

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Where else to talk incessantly but beside a bonfire? (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

5 Ways to Gain Well Being From Your Life Story


In the grand search for well being and happiness, our sense of identity plays a starring role. We grapple with three major questions:

  • Who am I?
  • How did I come to be?
  • Where is my life going?

The best way to take on these behemoths is by "constructing and internalizing a life story," according to eminent developmental psychologist Dan McAdams and a host of research in support of his theory.

In other words, we figure out who we are by writing a nonfiction narrative starring yours truly.

How Meaningful Life Stories Relate to Well Being

You've been naturally writing your life story since you were an adolescent, when you first became able to identify themes and causation in your personal tales:  "That guy I'm crushing on ignored me because my jeans are so Goodwill. That's just like last year, when mom made me wear those hand-me-down Keds."

As you can probably remember, adolescent stories aren't exactly meaningful.

That's why our twenties are all about figuring out who we are in a way that matters. It's no small task:  when we make meaning from our life stories, we enjoy greater psychological well being and higher self-understanding, compared to people with life stories that have little to no meaning.

"Through meaning making, people go beyond the plots and event details of their personal stories to articulate what they believe their stories say about who they are. Storytellers may suggest that the events they describe illustrate or explain a particular personality trait, tendency, goal, skill, problem, complex, or pattern in their own lives. In making meaning, the storyteller draws a semantic conclusion about the self from the episodic information that the story conveys." - McAdams and McLean

Given that making meaning from our personal narrative creates well being, the obvious question is how can we make meaning from our life stories? Here are five research-based answers.

1. Don't Just Tell Stories for Entertainment

Chevy Chase

Barstool stories are fun and definitely have their place in our lives (I, for one, wouldn't want to be around someone who is constantly trying to extract meaning from their life stories...which is perhaps why I married my opposite!). If you get hooked on only telling personal anecdotes to get a laugh instead of explaining yourself, you're less likely to create meaning and experience high well being.

Two of my friends come to mind. They always had an elaborate, hilarious anecdote to share for all gathered around, and gatherings weren't the same if they weren't there. These same people were deeply unhappy and dissatisfied with life, however, which you'd only discover if you happened to catch them alone. Perhaps this is one reason why comedians have high rates of depression.

Action Step: Balance your entertaining anecdotes with explanatory anecdotes - and make sure to cultivate friendships that let you share each.

2. Emphasize Your Ability to Control Your World

This is a biggie. If you can reconstruct your life stories to emphasize how much control you have over your world, the more well being you'll experience. In fact, studies show that rewriting your personal narrative to have more self-mastery, empowerment and achievement - aspects collectively called "agency" - is precisely what makes psychotherapy effective. I call this the "Becoming the Hero in Your Own Story" effect.

"Increases in personal agency preceded and predicted improvement in therapy. As patients told stories that increasingly emphasized their ability to control their world and make self-determined decisions, they showed corresponding decreases in symptoms and increases in mental health." - McAdams and McLean

Action Step: Consider how you're telling your life stories. Are you the victim in them, or are you active and impactful? If the former, be the editor of your life tale and rewrite that sucker. ASAP.

3. Consider Whether Friends & Family Accept Your Life Story

The following finding fascinates me:

"When important people in a person’s life agree with his or her interpretation of a personal story, he or she is likely to hold on to that story and to incorporate it into his or her more general understanding of who he or she is and how he or she came to be." - McAdams and McLean

This speaks volumes about the influence of our family, close friends, and significant others on our well being.

It also begs the question:  if the important people in your life don't agree with how we interpret our life stories, are we supposed to ditch them? Since research clearly shows that social integration is key to well being, that probably isn't the best choice. That said, I do believe in pruning friendships that consistently bring more misery than support, and friends' acceptance of your life stories may be one indicator of friendships that have run their course (or were a bad choice from the start).

Action Step: From here on out, actively choose friends and significant others who accept and confirm your interpretation of your experiences. It's your story, after all. Don't let anyone else be the author of your narrative.

Important caveat:  you do NOT want to surround yourself with people who accept your stories if they're full of "why me?" and "life is horrible" - these stories need to be challenged. But if you're telling thoughtful life stories, you shouldn't feel attacked and challenged. Period.

4. Identify the Redemption in Your Stories

Another way to create well being is to find the good in the bad. Psychologists call these a "redemption sequence" and they're important:

Redemption sequences "may sustain the hope or confidence that is needed to weather short-term setbacks while reinforcing long-term commitments to improving the lives of others." - McAdams and McLean

It may be impossible to find the "silver lining" while withstanding a hard time; in fact, feeling the full intensity of negative emotions in the moment may enhance well being. But once the moment has passed, do the hard work of making meaning, one element at a time.

Action Step: After a negative life event - such as an illness, loss or disppointment - make an effort to find the good that arose from the hard time. For instance, are you closer to your family, or know something new about yourself, or feel like you can take on different challenges in the future?

5. Find Attentive Listeners

be yourself for the sake of your well being

Finally, studies show that "attentive and responsive listeners cause tellers to narrate more personally elaborated stories compared with distracted listeners." This matches Point #2's take on psychotherapy's effectiveness.

Simply having a designated listener who reflects your feelings and asks clarifying questions can help you create meaning from your life story and find greater well being.

Action Step: Identify the friends and/or relative who consistently act as attentive listeners for your stories and make an effort to spend more time with them. You could also turn to a life coach, psychotherapist, or other professional. No matter how you find it, make sure you're being heard. It's the only way you'll hear yourself.

Now I Want to Hear From You

What do you do to create meaning from your life story? Or when have you actively changed your life story, and why did you do it?

What you have to say could make a big difference in another reader's life, so please share!


Source: McAdams, D. P, & McLean, K. C. (2013). Narrative Identity. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 22(3), 233-238.

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Chevy Chase was the life of the party, but behind closed doors he suffered debilitating depression. (Photo credit: Alan Light)

You'll hear yourself best with an attentive listener at your side. Photo Credit: Leonard John Matthews

Money and Happiness: What's the Right Balance?

When I talk to my Bates students about careers, their most common concern is that they won't make enough money. I'm always saying, Oh, the money will work itself out. If you love what you're doing, you don't need that much money to be happy. Chill out, financial stuff isn't as complicated as it seems. Apparently I'm not much of a pragmatist.

Or, more accurately, I take my relationship with money - and my understanding of the money-happiness link - for granted. Which is ridiculous. We need to get the money issue out in the open. Enough of the idealistic musings. It's time to stop being polite. And to start getting real. (Sorry, I couldn't resist.)

First a caveat:  if your innate desires honestly lead you toward a lucrative career path, if you're independently wealthy, or if you have some dirty-dealings way of making money on the sly, then you don't need this lecture. If you're instead like the rest of us - poor folk obsessed with doing "good" or "creative" work in fields that pay peanuts - then read on.

Step One: Understand How Much Money Actually Buys Happiness

Money cash

What I always tell my students - that money isn't that important, in terms of life satisfaction - is the truth. We know that happiness doesn't increase when incomes rise above about $50,000 to $75,000 a year (dependent on geographic region). It's also true that if we don't compare ourselves with people around us, we may be able to be happy with even less.

Furthermore, as we've discussed, happiness comes from having a sense of meaning and regular access to activities to that put us in the blissful state of "flow." Given that we spend about 90,000 hours at work over our lifetime, many of us choose to discover both "flow" and meaning through our work. Unfortunately, though, many careers that provide meaning and personal "flow" pay pennies. How, then, do we strike a balance between happiness and money?

Step Two: Determine How Much Money You Need

We must each find our own personal money-and-happiness balance. What's "enough" money for your friend may not be "enough" for you. I, for one, was determined to minimize the "enough" in my life because I recognized early in my working life that being a slave for money wasn't going to cut it. In fact, the first day I taught at Bates I came home and wrote in my journal, "No amount of money is worth my time." (I was a rebellious, self-righteous little snot, wasn't I?)

In order to figure out how much money you need, you of course have to do some basic budgeting. That's so not what we do here at CA101, but if you want to know more about budgeting, I'd recommend the excellent personal finance blog from your classmate, Chelsea, No Debt Brunette.

I'm instead interested in the psychology behind personal finance (shocker!). With that in mind, here are some questions to ask yourself as you determine how much money you actually need:

  • What does "basic survival" mean to you? Psychologists consistently find that we only need enough money for "basic survival" in order to be happy, including having food, clothes, and shelter. I'd argue that in America, definitions of "basic survival" vary greatly from person to person. For instance, you might not be able to imagine your life without your iPad or iPhone; they may very well feel like "basics" to you. I, on the other hand, don't have an iAnything other than two iPods that are both over five years old. What are the "basics" to you? The fewer things that you put on the "basics" list, the less money you need to achieve your "basic" standard of living.
  • Do you have a financial safety net? This comes in many forms, such as an emergency fund that you've somehow managed to save up, parents who you know would bail you out if things really fell apart, assets you could sell if push came to shove. The bigger your safety net, the more risks you can take, including accepting "dream jobs" that don't pay very well.
  • Is social comparison a major factor in your life? Be honest with yourself:  can you sit next to someone who is talking about her brand new Mercedes and her newly refinished hardwood floors and feel OK with your 12-year-old Hyundai and carpeted home? I, thankfully, can; that's precisely what you'll find in my garage and in my home. But if  you can't stand this, then you'll need more money to strike your money-and-happiness balance.

Once you know your own personal tolerance for financial risk and financial need, combined with raw figures for what you'll need to meet those psychological requirements, you'll have the first draft of your Big Fat Number:  the amount of income you need per year.

Step Three: Find Your Personal Balance Between Money and Happiness

Not so happy with your Big Fat Number? Is it quite...big? Well now you have a choice:  try to find a career that will match that number (even if said career makes you miserable in the process), or else change your Big Fat Number. (I might suggest the latter...)

You can change your Big Fat Number in two ways:

  1. Change your psychological approach. All of the factors listed in Step Two are within our control. We can choose to change our conception of what constitutes "basics," we can work to build an emergency fund (e.g., by taking a more lucrative job for a set period of time and diligently putting away every penny beyond what's needed for our basics in order to buy our own freedom), and/or we can learn to compare ourselves to others to a lesser degree.
  2. Control your spending. When I was in my early twenties, I worked on personal finance as diligently as I worked on my career. I read up on personal finance strategies (my faves:  How to Survive Without a Salary, The Average Family's Guide to Financial Freedom, and The Millionaire Next Door), tracked our expenses down to the dollar, and even made ridiculous pie charts comparing our budget to our spending, which I then presented to my husband at annual official budget meetings. (The poor guy is a good sport.)

Step Four: Re-Evaluate Your Money-Happiness Balance As Your Life Circumstances Change

The part that is shocking me - the thing that is throwing me for a total loop at this very moment in my life - is that once you've found your initial Big Fat Number, then worked with psychological and financial strategies to whittle it down as low as it can go, it'll keep shifting around on you. The Big Fat Number is a slippery little devil indeed.

Scales of Justice

For my husband and me, our combined Big Fat Number was pretty small, enabling us to pursue highly meaningful and self-directed careers for almost fifteen years of our lives. Then we had a child. And now it's all out of whack. (Case in point:  we owe 2.5 months worth of my take-home pay in taxes at this very moment based on an online tax calculator. 2.5 months! In case you thought this money post was coming from out of the blue...)

Now that our Big Fat Number has increased, does that mean I have to look for work that is less personally meaningful? I don't know. I haven't found the answer. For now I'm trying to squeeze a bit more out of the questions I listed in Step Two - e.g., maybe our "basics" became too "non-basic" once we brought home the child over whom we wanted to dote, or maybe I am now too driven by social comparisons since I hang in mom circles, which are notoriously comparison-based.

This is life:  you figure it out, then it goes changing on you. And I think that's why, when my students ask about money during our career talks, I sort of blow them off.  Because you do not have to make life and career choices that get the financial picture "just right forever." You simply have to create a financial outlook that is "good enough for the next year or two or three."

But even that takes a lot of effort. A fact I am finally, finally conceding.

Next class, though, back to pie-in-the-sky idealism. I'm so much more comfortable with my feet firmly off the ground. As long as there's a little change in my pocket for the flight.

How are you striking the money-happiness balance in your life?

My salary tends to be counted in change. (Photo credit: @Doug88888)

What's your ideal balance? (Photo credit: DonkeyHotey)

Ten Years of Living (Part of) My Dream

Remember how you used to get your teacher off track by asking her personal questions so that she'd cover no testable material? Well today's that day. On Beating a Quarterlife Crisis, Kristi Eaton recently asked about how we figure out where to live. This got me thinking about when I was 24 and completely lost. In other words, feeling like many of you do. And to prove that I work hard not to dole out ideas and advice that I don't struggle to follow myself (despite my quip in my profile, I abhor when people do this), here's a portion of my twentysomething tale. We shall call it The Residential Portion.

At 24 I was enrolled in a PhD program I hated, about to earn a non-terminal master's degree (AKA:  A Degree Worth Nothing in the Real World), and had no prospects for life after dropping out of grad school. But I knew - knew intensely - that I had to quit (which is a rich topic for another post; quitting is an awesome skill to have).

The only stable part of my life was my husband, whom I'd met in high school and had hung onto during the tumultuous "seeing other people" college years before marrying "young" at 22. (By that point, we'd already been together for seven years so we didn't feel young.)

But my career - along with my purpose, my dreams, my goals, my entire existence for being - was a total wash. I'd done what you all are fearing so hard:  I'd gone down the "wrong" path.

Washed up at 24. <tsk, tsk, tsk>

So I did what any reasonable twentysomething would do:  I moved to Maine.


Wait. Maine? Don't you mean New York City or Los Angeles or some other glamorous hot spot? Certainly you don't mean Maine. What twentysomething wants to live in Maine?

Portland, Maine

Well, not many, that's true; Maine suffers from an outflux of young people, called the savory term "brain drain" (I always picture chunky blood going down a sink when I hear that...yuck). But I'd dreamed of living in Maine since I was in 7th grade. It was my one true thing. Well, other than always wanting to be a writer, but that was so not happening. I mean, who takes a creative path with no guarantee of income and a certainty of rejection? No one reasonable, especially not someone with the logical mind that gets you enrolled in a social science doctoral program.

Since high school, my husband and I had said we'd move to Maine when we retired. There we were, though, just two years into marriage, our lives in complete disarray - me having panic attacks from the misery of grad school; him working for Enterprise Rent-A-Car after failing one of the standardized teaching exams in New York (there's the twentysomething dream: washing cars while wearing a suit & tie. Woo hoo!) - and so we looked at each other and said, "Why not now?"

You know, because 25 is the new 65. Or something like that.

I quit my graduate program, the hubby arranged for a transfer with Enterprise, and on June 1, 2003 we moved just outside Portland, Maine.

I had no job. I had no prospects. But I was in Maine! My dream state!

And why was it my dream from the tender age of 12? Oh, you know, because of reading. I'll let your mind fill in the blank with some literary classic set in the state (perhaps some of Longfellow's poetry? Or The Country of the Pointed Firs? Or even The Beans of Egypt, Maine?) Alright, alright, it was a teen horror trilogy The Fire, The Storm and Something I Forget. Oh yeah, high class reading!

All I know is that when I read about the rocky coasts, the foggy days, the lobster boats, I felt in my core I belong there. It's an inexplicable feeling, but I am a firm believer that we all hold this about at least one thing - whether it be what we want to do for fun, or for career, or where to live, or what type of people we want to be around. You can try to analyze it and figure out why you feel it but you'll never figure it out. And you should not; that would be to disembowel the unicorn.

Such is my draw to Maine. In my decade here, the dream of Maine has given way to reality - some of it harsh, like ice dams on the roof that leak into your home and make your ceilings dangle like utters - which was my greatest fear when moving here:  that I'd be sorely disappointed and no longer have a comforting vision to cling to during hard times.

Here's what I discovered, though:  It's much more painful to keep yourself from something you want, out of fear that it might not work out, than to live with the realities you encounter when you let yourself see all of the bumps and warts and beautiful ugliness of that thing.

All in all, it could be said that my life has, so far, unfolded completely differently than I'd expected.

As a child - a progressive modern girl who soaked up Free to Be You and Me - I thought I would secure my career, then find a man, then have kids, eventually retire, then move to Maine, then pursue the hobby of writing.

In actuality, I found a man, moved to Maine, pursued writing, had a kid. And eventually, I suppose, there'll be retirement, but I don't much care about that since I'm already writing in Maine.

This is how a life is constructed:  one bit at a time, not necessarily in the order you planned. When everything is falling apart, you can choose to identify and develop the one thing that you know is true and real and swells from somewhere deep within you and then let the other pieces come in their due time. Or you can cling to your plan. And be miserable.

By taking the "wrong" path in my life, I found the right one. If I'd done career "right" the first go round, I'd still be living somewhere else, doing something else, longing for Maine, longing to write, longing to be.

Instead I am being. And loving it.

I wish you as much. And more.

And now back to the material...

The Way Life Should Be. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The End of Confusion is An Illusion

I used to dream of the day I'd have it "all figured out." Nowadays I hear my students constantly speak of this magical land. "I can't wait to have it all figured out," they say. Or "When I have it all figured out, I'll..." Or "My friends have it all figured out." Island in Lhaviyani Atoll

All Figured Out is a beautiful oasis where you can recline on handwoven hammocks while warm, salty breezes tickle your hair; attractive masseuses knead your legs and feet; and decadent, sweet drinks ooze through every crevice of your mouth.

Life is good in All Figured Out. It's where we all aim to one day land. It's what we're all working for. It's the photo negative of our current complicated and confused lives, its very presence making us discontent with the here and now.

Thing is, it doesn't exist.

Oh wait, should I not be telling you this?

OK, then I WON'T tell you that at this very moment, squarely in my mid-thirties, I'm stressing over:

a) Which town to move to when we eventually get the guts to sell our house:  the dream town near the ocean that has intense schools and that we can't afford, or the practical inland town with solid schools that we can't really afford, either.

b) Whether to try to have another child. And how to afford said child's care and food and sundry needs, if he or she were to arrive.

c) How much time and energy to direct toward my teaching versus my paid freelance writing versus my unpaid writing (read: this blog). And how shifting said energy would affect heretofore specified Questions a and b.

Sound like I live in All Figured Out?

Yet if my twentysomething self had encountered me in the classroom - wow, that's a weird picture, to imagine me teaching me...I think I would've disliked myself from both directions! - I would've thought differently. "My prof has her career, she has her family, she has her home. She has it All Figured Out," I would've said wistfully to my friends. In fact, I did say that very thing about my Psych 101 prof. Many times. Until I got to know her when I was a senior. And I stopped saying it.

Sure, compared to having EVERYTHING up in the air the way it is in your twenties, my life is pretty settled. But it's not All Figured Out. And, with any luck, it never will be.

Yeats said, "Happiness is neither virtue nor pleasure nor this thing nor that, but simply growth. We are happy when we are growing."

Ah, yes, growth. How else to account for the fact that people sell their homes about 12 years after buying them, have seven careers in a lifetime, and end 40-50% of their marriages? We're not a static species. As much as we dream of All Figured Out, we don't actually want to get there.

Case in point:  how often do you do nothing? You want to do it a lot, right? You tell your friends all the time that you can't wait to "do nothing," don't you?

But what does "do nothing" consist of for you? Probably watching Netflix or YouTube or Hulu, hanging out on social media, chilling to some music. I sincerely doubt that "doing nothing" means literally "doing nothing." As in, sitting in a darkened room with only your thoughts to keep your company.

When a psych researcher paid people to do just that back in the 1950s (paid them double what they normally earned, no less!), most of the participants dropped out within a day. They couldn't take the boredom. Those who stayed became disoriented,


restless, and even complained of nausea (Bexton et al., 1954).

This is because we have stimulus motives, a basic need for novel stimulation. And we're not alone; other animals show signs of having stimulus motives, too.

In other words, when life gets too routine, we shake things up. It's a need, like eating or sleeping or having sex (you're not giggling, are you?!).

So have I now sufficiently freaked you out?

You are never going to make it to All Figured Out. You may vacation there once in a while. There may be a run of hours or day or weeks when you hang out on those handwoven hammocks. But mark my words, you'll want out. Badly.

Which you can either take as scary as hell - what they heck am I working toward then?!?!?! - or as a relief. Because if no one lives in All Figured Out, you can stop striving to be there and you can just simply be. As in, where you are right now. In the Land of Confusion.

If nothing else, you've got company there. Plenty of it.

This just might be All Figured Out (Photo credit: Edgar Barany)

Chase Happiness

Here’s a counterintuitive one:  If you want to avoid having a fulfilling career (the point of our class, after all), determinedly chase happiness. Now wait a minute, you must be thinking, isn’t chasing happiness a good idea? Isn’t it written into our Declaration of Independence? Isn’t it a fundamental goal in our society?

Well, yes, but it shouldn’t be. At least not the way we practice it.

You see, we go about chasing happiness all wrong in America, and in most Western countries. The more we chase it, the less happy we are. Witness the drop in happiness over time, of which your generation has borne the brunt.

That’s because there are three routes to happiness and we tend to focus on only one of them. The route we usually pick doesn’t relate to life satisfaction. Instead it makes us keep wanting more.

Here’s the down and dirty:

  • When we talk about wanting to be happy, we usually mean we want to feel pleasure. Feeling good is the end goal. To feel good in our society, though, we typically need money so we can buy things (big house, new car, iEverything) and experiences (vacations, pedicures, sporting events, concerts). And having some fame or status doesn’t hurt, either (the Kardashians experience their fair share of pleasure, don’t they? Well, when they're not sobbing over staged divorces and the like). These goals that are outside of us – extrinsic goals – tend to make us feel less satisfied with life and more anxious. No matter how much pleasure we experience, we always adapt to what we have and want more. Psychologists call this the hedonic treadmill.
  • You could instead chase happiness by entering a state of “flow” as frequently as possible. Flow is what you experience when you lose track of time and become disconnected from the world around you. Like when you’re, say, aimlessly surfing the web. We experience flow when we’re doing something we enjoy AND that we’re good at. So if you make the time to figure out your skill sets and your interests, you can forge a career – and hobbies, and relationships – where the two converge. People who do this have higher life satisfaction; it’s an effective way to chase happiness. That said, it sounds like a lot of work, doesn’t it? Identifying your strengths? Zeroing in on your interests? Reshaping your life around these? Ugh. Who has the time? If you’re thinking this way, you’re a Career Avoidance 101 superstar indeed.

    Smiley head happy

  • Finally, you could seek out a sense of meaning, a feeling that you’re doing something bigger than you. This isn’t a popular route in our ego-crazed society, of course. I mean, who wants to take the time and energy to look beyond themselves? Not only that, doing something meaningful often means hard, even painful, work. You often have to forgo pleasures in the day-to-day throes of the work. Like how I was up at 2am the other night while my daughter screamed for no discernable reason for the 10th night in a row, and I thought, My God, there is no pleasure in this. 25 months of sleep disruptions. I forget what solid sleep feels like. I’m going to go fricking insane. Fricking, fricking, fricking insane. I then proceeded to shout this at my unsuspecting, heretofore-snoozing husband. Is raising a child meaningful work? Absolutely. The trudging, on-the-ground reality of it is not “fun” at all, though. To be sure, the meaningful route to happiness is not what our society portrays as “happiness." It's not all I found my purpose and know what I'm meant to do with my life and now my life is full of rainbows and puppies and fields of glowing yellow sunflowers!!! Hell no. Seeking meaning will piss you off at times. Royally. But the people who manage to do it, who actually work toward happiness through meaning, they’re more satisfied with life, and they even tend to live longer and have fewer health problems. Worth it? You decide.

All in all, it’s easy to chase happiness in an unproductive – even harmful – way. Simply do what society has taught you to do since the moment you were born:  shop your way to happiness, seek out pleasurable experiences at all costs, and focus on big fat ol’ YOU. It’s hella appealing, isn’t it?

Or you could take the hard road. And actually be happy.

If you think you’ve got the guts for the latter (you’re intent on failing this class, aren’t you?!), then start by taking some questionnaires offered by UPenn’s Martin Seligman. These are research-based, psych-tested questionnaires, not some weirdo surveys written by doofuses who want to trick you into spending money to get your “results.” The UPenn questionnaires not only tell you about yourself – such as your strengths (the VIA Survey of Character Strengths), the route to happiness you use (Approaches to Happiness Questionnaire), and your life satisfaction (Satisfaction with Life Scale) - they also tell you how you compare to the thousands of people who have taken the questionnaires (my current pleasure rating? 12th percentile. Woo hoo, parenting a toddler!) and can track your progress over time. For free.

And here’s some reading/watching to do. This isn't self-help crap. It's real psych. Promise.


Authentic Happiness:  Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment by Martin Seligman, PhD. 2003. Free Press.

Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert, PhD. 2007. Vintage.

Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, PhD (these are the moments I'm so glad this class is online and not in front of the classroom because there I would butcher that name if I had to say it aloud). 2008. Harper.

To Watch (available streaming on Netflix):

Happy by Roko Belic. 2011.

This Emotional Life, hosted by Daniel Gilbert, PhD. 2010. (Watch it all - it's great - but if you're pressed for time, dive right into Episode 3.)

Be happy (Photo credit: Wikipedia)