New Year’s Thoughts


Conventional New Year’s resolutions don’t interest me much. At least not before careful consideration. Here, then, are suggestions to help reconfigure your 2015 list. They fit with the notion of the road not taken; or the direction not discovered. They are ideas to apply to your resolution-making, not a set of 2015 goals themselves:

  • Slash the resolutions you’ve already made! The more things on the list, the less likely you will attend to any of them. Achieving one or two life changes is remarkable enough. By reducing the number, you must decide what is important to you. The exercise has value by itself. When you consider the rest of the items below, keep this in mind.
  • Challenge your intuitions. Research by psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Jonathan Haidt suggests we quickly and intuitively come to our positions on matters as serious as politics and religion. According to Haidt, our brain acts as a kind of post hoc lawyer to defend instinct-driven moral beliefs and to fool us into thinking the “defense” — the reasons we give for our stance — preceded our convictions. Opening your mind to rejected ideas isn’t easy, but it might enlighten you.
  • Don’t borrow trouble. Most of the things about which we worry never happen. Beyond taking proper precautions over what you control, worry is an anxiety-inducing waste. Yes, look both ways before you cross the street, plan your financial future, eat well and exercise, but don’t obsess. Consternation offers you nothing. Need help? Check Craske and Barlow’s cognitive-behavioral program with your therapist or consider ACT (Acceptance & Commitment Therapy).
  • Realize the road is bumpy on occasion. A good life depends, in part, on knowing rocky and smooth stretches are unpredictable, inevitable, and temporary; all part of the highway we travel. Years ago I asked a wise financial advisor, Rick Taft, “How do you think stocks will do in the New Year?” His answer? “The market will fluctuate.” We could just as easily describe the inconstant fate awaiting us as an unavoidable fluctuation. No matter how smart you are, Fortuna (the Roman goddess of luck) spins her wheel. Good emotional shock absorbers are essential. Failures and tears add to the richness of our existence, however much you and I wish they could be avoided. You can learn from them, but only if you reflect on your life and keep a mirror handy for an occasional self-inspection.
  • Whose life are you living? The one you want or the one designed to make people love you and accept you? Evolution led our ancestors to concern themselves with reputation. Those who did increased their chances of survival and mating success. Like a number of the qualities evolution “selected for,” a preoccupation with the opinion of others can drive us crazy. Happiness is not the aim of evolution, only passing on your genes to a new generation. Once again, you might need to fight instinctive tendencies if you wish more than an average measure of satisfaction. Anticipation of the world’s disapproval leads one to display a false self and worry about being unmasked. Remember, this is your life (not theirs), and tuning out some of the voices who criticize is part of creating a strong and resilient personality.
  • Research suggests generosity to others is more fulfilling than spending your nickles on yourself. Similarly, experiences will offer more pleasure and satisfying memories (say, of a vacation) than things like an attention-getting sweater or a hot car. Think back. Do you feel warm inside as you remember the set of wheels you had 10 years ago? I don’t need to think hard: I am still driving the car I bought in 2000! More on how to get from here to happiness from Daniel Gilbert:

It is said that “Comedy is tragedy plus time.” Just so, maturity is achieved by surviving life challenges plus the passage of time, with some learning thrown in, of course. I’m not suggesting disappointment and mistreatment are equally distributed among us, but each of us knows suffering and, fair or not, it is in our interest to learn from the bad breaks.

All the above considered, here are ideas to push your sail boat off the dock and into the fresh waters of the New Year:

    • It is not that you have done wrong (you have), but whether you do more and more good.
    • It is not that you fall, but whether you get up.
    • It is not that you are a victim, but whether you are a survivor.
    • It is not that you make mistakes (you will), but whether you learn from them.
    • It is not that you get angry, but whether you get over it.
    • It is not that friends and lovers disappoint you, but whether you still believe in friendship and love.
    • It is not that you erred, but whether you took responsibility.
    • It is not that you take life seriously, but whether you also recognize its laughable absurdity.
    • It is not that you’ve forgotten what’s been lost, but whether you are grateful for what you have.
    • It is not that you see life’s ugliness, but whether you seek its beauty.

To close, the following old words from the nineteenth-century Scottish writer, Robert Louis Stevenson, seem just right for 2015:

“Give us grace and strength to forbear and to persevere. Give us courage and gaiety and the quiet mind. Spare us to our friends and soften us to our enemies. Give us strength to encounter that which is to come, that we may be brave in peril, constant in tribulation, temperate in wrath and in all changes of fortune, and down to the gates of death loyal and loving to one another.”

The Work-Life Balancing Act*

256px-Adi_Holzer_Tightrope Walking

Do you “live to work” or do you “work to live?”

Psychologists call for balance between your work and your “life,” but this is like a tightrope walk on a high wire. We struggle to give equal honor to personal industry as well as friends, family, and recreation. We strain to avoid a big fall.

Goldilocks might have said that we are looking for the kind of combination of work and life that is neither too hot nor too cold, but “just right.” Once it is found, even the best of us have to adjust to keep that tenuous balance, to pull back from “too much” or “too little” so that we can get to the point of “just right” for a bit of time, before we again lose our balance and recalibrate.

We serve different masters in the office and outside of it, one to the right and one to the left, both pulling at us for attention. Thus, the first lesson to achieving equilibrium is to realize that it will be a challenge for as long as we are employed, requiring regular monitoring and refinement.

The dangers implicit in work are clear at each extreme. If you stress too much over your job — work too hard at it — you will be burned-out or burned up; unable to sleep well, anxious and depressed.

In some circumstances, of course, you don’t have a choice. But few people on the death-bed have been heard to say, “You know, I should have spent more time in the office.” Still, care too little about your vocation and you risk being unproductive, bored, boring, and adrift; dependent upon others and struggling with unhappiness.

Before you can begin to rejigger your work-life tension, it might be useful to think about what work means to you. It probably has more than one of these meanings:

  1. You work because you need to make a living.
  2. You work because you want to create jobs for others.
  3. You work because you enjoy the act of working itself, not the product of the work.
  4. You work because you relish the learning (how to understand or do new things) that comes from work.
  5. You work because you hanker for competition (with coworkers or other companies).
  6. You work because you want to achieve recognition and/or wealth.
  7. You work because you hope to create something (a better mouse trap, a scientific discovery, a masterpiece of art, etc.).
  8. You work because you wish to attract a mate (who will be drawn to your competence, your ability to make a living, or your status).
  9. You work to improve your self-esteem.
  10. You work to pass the time and avoid sinking into negative (anxious or depressed) feelings when not otherwise occupied.
  11. You work to make the world a better place.
  12. You work to “find yourself,” as suggested by the protagonist, Charles Marlow, in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness:

No, I don’t like work. I had rather laze about and think of all the fine things that can be done. I don’t like work — no man does — but I like what it is in the work — the chance to find yourself. Your own reality — for yourself, not for others — what no other man can ever know. They can only see the mere show, and never can tell what it really means.

Sisyphus mural_russia_03

Some of these valuations hold risk. If you only work to make a living (which is certainly a necessary goal) you are in greater danger of being bored (or frankly hating what you do) than if you are looking for something that captures more than money. If you labor to create jobs (for your kids or strangers) that responsibility can be a burden and, in the former case, can even rob your offspring of the initiative to make their own way. If you work to better your children’s lives, but neglect them because of your work, you might well defeat the project that motivated you in the first place.

One more peril occurs when you see your job placement as just one step up a never-ending ladder toward higher status or money. This trip to the top is usually called the “rat race” and you are in danger of turning yourself into a rat in order to get ahead, only to discover that paycheck doesn’t buy as much happiness as you expect it to. Or perhaps you do it for “show,” to get others to admire you. But, if you are very concerned with what friends and neighbors think about you, consider these words of Marcus Aurelius, the Roman Emperor and Stoic philosopher, in his Meditations:

I have often wondered how it is that every man loves himself more than all the rest of men, but yet sets less value on his own opinion of himself than on the opinion of others.

If you love the work itself you are a lucky duck. If you lose yourself in the process of making the task-oriented effort, unconscious of the passage of time because of your absorbing focus, you may even attain the joyous frame of mind called “flow.” Flow is the word given by psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi to the state that athletes call “being in the zone.” But, you needn’t be a sports hero to get there. It happens whenever you are fully engaged and single-mindedly immersed in the job at hand, generating both a peak in your performance and a state of positive emotion.


How important is work according to the experts? Freud thought that “love and work are the cornerstones of our humanness.” But, while work can drive you crazy, work failures might not be as devastating as you think. Daniel Gilbert and colleagues found just that in an experiment published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in 1998.

The authors looked at how happiness might be affected by work disappointment. Specifically, they studied assistant professors at the University of Texas at Austin who either succeeded in getting tenure (a promotion that guarantees a permanent position) or failed to get it (which usually means you have to leave for a different college or a different line of work).

Measures of happiness taken over a period of 10 years after the tenure determination indicated that “the outcome of the tenure decision did not have a dramatic and robust influence on (the) general happiness (of the teachers).” The researchers concluded that we commonly ignore our emotional resilience and durability when we think about life’s disappointments, something that they called “immune neglect:” a failure to recognize our own psychological capacity for immunity from long-lasting devastation following events such as the temporary professional disappointment that the unlucky assistant professors experienced.

In my own working life, I honored the desire to make a good living, but also had the good fortune to achieve a “flow” state at least some of the time because of my pleasure and involvement in the therapy process. Nonetheless, the work vied with the importance of “being there” for my wife and kids.

When I erred, it was surely to work too much, even if I never missed a school event or conference. Which meant that I heard way too many performances of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” played by dozens — no hundreds — no thousands, of little out-of-tune violinists at my children’s school concerts! At least that is the way it felt. But, it was all in a vital cause.

I also tried to hold two ideas in my mind simultaneously:

  1. That the work of being a therapist was good, important, and rewarding. My patients deserved my best efforts.
  2. That, in the big picture, the world would go on without me and that I would not be remembered alongside of Freud and B.F. Skinner. In other words, I was replaceable, regardless of how well I did my work and how much I might have helped some people. That attitude saved me from reaching for something too grand and self-important — from driving myself even harder than I did. It also allowed me to feel a sense of accomplishment for what I could do for others, rather than what I couldn’t do in the realm of greatness.

I’ll grant you that holding these two ideas simultaneously is difficult. Whatever your line of work, you have to give it some significance to do it justice. You only get out of it what you put into it, as the old saying goes. But, if you make it a matter of life and death — well — you are probably going to die a lot; meaning you will not live very well or happily.

My advice would be to look for work that is satisfying in the act of doing it; that is, a process that just might get you to the “flow” state. Work should also fulfill the basic need to make a living and, ideally, command at least a little respect in the world. To my mind, subsistence is most important, keeping yourself interested is pretty important, status and wealth are less important. As for glory and immortality? Forget about them in favor of some balance, if your boss will allow it.

Unfortunately, having a good work-life balance is — well — a lot of hard work!

*This essay is not meant to dismiss the very real and desperately important work of child rearing, but rather to look at conventional employment for which you are paid as compared to the part of life that doesn’t reward you with a paycheck.

The first image is called Life is Like Tightrope Walking by Adi Holzer, sourced from Wikimedia Commons. The second picture is a recent mural done by AEC and waone, which graces the side of a building in Ekatreinburg, Russia. It is called Sisyphus. Finally, We Can Do It is a wartime poster done in 1942 for the Westinghouse Corporation by J. Howard Miller.

Do You Have a Bad Attitude?

Life is difficult enough without making yourself miserable. Those who begin with a negative, “can’t do” point of view often justify themselves by saying that they don’t want to get their hopes up; that the world is unfair and one should be prepared for it. But in so doing they can create their own misery and bring down the mood of those who are close by.

I’ll discuss below a few variations on this theme — different forms of “bad attitude” along with some potential solutions:

1. Focusing on the past. While I am a firm believer in learning from the past, one must remember that it is yesterday’s news. Short of daydreaming about a happier time in your life or doing the essential work of grieving, it can fuel sadness without compensating benefits. The past holds too many unfulfilled hopes, failures, and broken romances. It is the storehouse of betrayals — about “what might have been.” It is the place where things that went wrong can fill your mind and heart with regret. It is a wasteland of missed opportunities, lost beauty, and a nostalgia that is no more satisfying than trying to fill your stomach with the photo of a past meal. Visit the past, but don’t live there.

2. Living in a frightening future. An exclusive focus on the future can be as deadly as a preoccupation with the past. The twin dangers of living in the future are worry/anxiety and make-believe daydreaming. Most who live in the future usually live a life of dread, overpredicting catastrophe and underestimating their ability to survive misfortune.

The only thing we have in life with any certainty is the present. Any chance of happiness depends upon one’s ability to find a way to live in the moment and find satisfaction there, experiencing it and whatever it brings, accepting life on its terms. Plan for the future but be careful not to live in that future any more than you live in the past.

The goal ahead might be very worthwhile, but try to enjoy the journey to get there. Mindfulness meditation, Stoic philosophy, the Zen tradition, and ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy) can help reorient you to determining what is important in life; setting aside what is inessential, distracting, or worrisome; and living according to those principles in the present moment.

3. Pessimism or the self-fulfilling prophecy. Pessimism is a close cousin to worry and anxiety over events that may never happen. It smothers spontaneity, joy, and drains energy. It renders defeat in the game of life even before the game has begun. It anticipates a guilty verdict from the jury that causes one not even to show up for the trial. Pessimism destroys motivation and generates avoidance of challenges or half-hearted effort, at best. Depression and pessimism drink from the same poisoned well.

4. Throwing a wet blanket on the happiness of others. Don’t be a buzz-killer, a kill-joy, or a party pooper. Avoid raining on someone else’s parade. Don’t be an emotional suicide bomber, someone who brings down oneself and all those around you. A bad attitude can consist of always seeing the single dark cloud on a glorious sun-lit day, especially if the sun is shining on someone else. It is the “yes, but” response to the other’s good fortune, her excitement, and her dreams. It attempts to make others suffer as much as you are. This attitude masquerades as attempting to “be helpful” or “realistic” or trying to prevent the friend or child “from being hurt.” Perhaps. But it is a cautionary or negative/critical message at the wrong time, in the wrong place, to the wrong person.

5. Rejecting the encouragement or helpfulness of others. Most people want to ease your suffering, to offer you some encouragement or hope or solace. But if you have a bad attitude, you will reject all of this. You will say “I’ve thought of that already” when you are offered a suggestion or “I’ve already tried that” or “That won’t work because…” Instead, your bad attitude may isolate you from those who only wish to offer their presence and show their affection for you; their simple desire to hold your hand in a difficult moment. In the worst case you will drive such people away, thereby increasing your sense of separation from the world and guaranteeing a solitary misfortune.

6. Perfectionism or the belief that things can always be better. Some of us can’t accept a grade of 99% on the test, simply because we could have done better. Short of performing brain surgery, it is useful to be able to accept the imperfect nature of life and ourselves. Do your best, prepare for the race, study hard; but realize that perfection (if it is to be found at all) resides only in the works of Mozart, Rembrandt, Shakespeare, and a few others. If you punish yourself for falling short of that ideal, you have misunderstood the nature of life on earth and guaranteed that you will be joyless.

7. Whining and complaining. Worse than those who see only the dark side of life are those who not only see it, but won’t let you get away from them before they tell you about it in malcontented detail. They tend not to focus on abstractions. Rather, their concern is not the unfairness of life, but the unfairness of their life. There is no surer way of driving people away than to adopt this particular version of a bad attitude.

8. Fighting every battle. Some people seem perpetually aggrieved and angry. They live with a chip on each shoulder, daring life to knock the wood off. Life will knock it off, but not in the way that they expect. Their anger will breed anger in others. And in fighting perpetually, they will miss any sense of contentment or joy.

No one can take on all the battles worth joining, let alone those that will produce nothing of value. As an antidote to rage, gratitude for the things in life too easily taken for granted can be coupled with acceptance of the things that you can’t change. Ideally, these two abilities will usually counterbalance the frustrations and resentments of life without robbing you of the capacity to fight the good fight when necessary. Telling the difference between those skirmishes that need you and those you should pass is crucial. If you are too angry too often, seek counseling.

9. Refusing to take life seriously. If you’ve been paying attention, there is a relatively new popular expression among teens and a few others. It is called YOLO or “you only live once.” It justifies mindless foolishness; not just ill-considered behavior, but action that is not considered at all. It can be an excuse for doing whatever you want or refusing to do whatever someone else might advise. YOLO suggests that you are not living in the future, not living in the past, and not living in any really mindful present. If you were, the thought of driving 60 miles an hour down a side street in a school zone would never be translated into actually doing it. We seem to make enough mistakes in life without adopting a philosophy of life that virtually guarantees it.

10. Too much realism. While it helps to see the world as it is, there is the risk of it being too much of a good thing. The world as it is today (or most any day) includes poverty, genocide, and betrayal; infirmity, disease, and heartbreak; stress, cruelty, and the big one: death. Everyone you know will die and that also includes you. Focus on all of this just enough to make the most of your precious and too short life. Focus on it just a little more and you will be so depressed that you won’t want to get out of bed.

If you have any of the bad attitudes I’ve described, your first response will usually be to justify it; perhaps even to see it as a strength. But I would ask you if you are satisfied with your life as it is? If not, then you may need to investigate that same attitude, especially those aspects that actually could be making the problem worse. Ask friends and family what they see in you that needs to change — if they have enough courage and love of you to tell you the truth (and you have the guts to take it). Looking in the mirror — seeing yourself as others see you — is brutally hard, but can be a first step to enlightenment and a better life.

Read Czikszentmihalyi about “flow” and those wonderous moments when one is so involved in a productive/creative action that one loses all sense of time and self. Read Daniel Gilbert’s Stumbling on Happiness, Martin Seligman, Daniel Kahneman (Thinking Fast and Slow) and other “positive” (hedonic) psychologists about what makes for happiness and how to get there.

It can be helpful to make a list of those things for which you are grateful. Indeed, it may be of assistance to look back at the day to find what it can teach you or what was good (even on a bad day). Yes, I know that plenty that is bad does happen and has happened and will happen. But we humans must not live in these moments of misery for too long without grieving our losses and moving on, learning to accept the nature of life, and learning that the very best times are unreflecting, unself-conscious, utterly spontaneous experiences that we don’t think about, we simply are living them.

In part, our job is to pull our head out of its backward look, out of its forward glance, and play the game that is exactly where we are — right here, right now. That ultimately means more action, more experiment, more risk and less thought — swimming in the pool of life without regard to getting wet. It matters not if you start in the shallow end of the pool because most of us do — just don’t stay there.

Rear Admiral Grace Murray Harper knew more than a little about the water and about the voyage. She put the idea of living your life with a good (rather than a bad) attitude very well:

A ship in port is safe; but that is not what ships are built for. Sail out to sea and do new things.

The top image is Emotions X by Franz Xaver Messerschmidt (1736-1783) downloaded by access. The second is Messerschmidt’s The Constipated, dowloaded by Sailko. Both are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.