Last week I said the reason we stall in life is because we lose meaning. Of course meaning, lift, purpose (whatever you want to call it) is the reason we do anything. The meaning we give our life is the reason we get out of bed in the morning. Otherwise, why bother?
In its deepest sense this means depression. Depression is a loss of lift. Most people think of depression as a kind of sadness but that’s not correct. While sadness is often associated with depression they are not the same thing.
Sadness is a feeling. Depression is a more like a lack of feeling. It feels like a heavy fog blankets everything. All you want to do is let that fog envelope you. It’s a form of retreat from life. A deep withdrawal. A shrivelling of the self.
It’s a loss of hope, either in yourself or the world at large. As it happens that’s the primary reason we give life meaning. Meaning gives us hope. When we fail to see the meaning in something we lose hope. This causes us to give up.
This is happening to us collectively on a staggering scale in the modern world. A scale that is only increasing. To quote some rather alarming statistics:
- In the United States, depression and anxiety are on an eighty-year upswing among young people and a twenty-year upswing among the adult population.
- Not only are people experiencing depression in greater numbers, but they’re experiencing it at earlier ages, with each generation.
- Across the U.S. population, feelings of loneliness and social isolation are up. Nearly half of all Americans now report feeling isolated, left out, or alone in their lives.
- Social trust is also not only down across the developed world but plummeting, meaning fewer people than ever trust their government, the media, or one another.
- In the 1980s, when researchers asked survey participants how many people they had discussed important personal matters with over the previous six months, the most common answer was “three.” By 2006, the most common answer was “zero.”
Clearly then, something is up. It certainly ain’t the sky!
If we take the premise that the underlying reason we stall stems from a loss of meaning, and if we also take the premise that the main reason we lose meaning stems from an inability to let go (meaning we’re unable to accept something), that begs a number of questions.
Why have we lost meaning on such a colossal scale, especially in the modern developed world? What it is we’re unable to let go of? What can we do to save ourselves before it’s too late?
Undeniably these are complex and difficult questions to answer, but since I’m writing a book, I best have a crack. Let’s start with the obvious before taking a rapid nose dive off a cliff!
On the surface it seems the reason we stall is a matter wanting something we can’t have. It’s like being grounded as a pilot. The desire to fly leaves us wishing for a different reality.
Of course, we want to be out and about, exploring the world, playing with our mates. We want to be getting rich, ripped, promoted and recognised for being the hero (or heroine) we all imagine we could and should be.
We all want to have the perfect glistening bodies, deeply meaningful careers, and raise perfect children who would never fart in public. We want a bigger house, a faster car, a fatter paycheque.
We want adulation from millions of ardent fans. We want to conquer the world and leave a legacy so our name may live on for all eternity.
That’s we want, if we’re brutally honest.
The question is why? Why do feel we must have everything, do everything and please everyone? Why is what we have never enough?
Performance coach and author Brad Stulberg calls this condition heroic individualism. “An ongoing game of one-upmanship against both yourself and others, paired with the limiting belief that measurable achievement is the only arbiter of success.”
As he explains, “men describe it as a cumbersome need to be bulletproof, invincible.” Whereas “women report feeling like they must be everything always, continually falling short of impossible expectations.”
The big issue with heroic individualism is the underlying belief.
We aren’t driven by a deep internal value system – or moral compass – but a deep seated fear that who we are and what we have isn’t enough. A fear that we are way off course, miles away from the destination we should be, and heading in wrong direction still.
So we feel we must keep striving, pushing, whipping ourselves in a desperate attempt to make up for our lack of being, to get our lives back on course – to climb to the highest possible cruising level for our lives to hold any meaning.
It’s the equivalent of pulling full back struck and applying maximum thrust 24/7. You’ll certainly see some short term results. But eventually, rather quickly, you’ll burn out and stall. It’s not sustainable over the long haul.
This is worth stressing: Whether you feel need to do everything or struggle to do anything, in either case you are driven by a sense of hopelessness.
Ultimately, if we don’t learn to accept ourselves for who and where we are, we will always feel out of control. This is important because a sense of control is central to maintaining hope. If we don’t feel we have any control, eventually, we lose hope.
When this happens we get a visit from the existential worm at the core. (I’ll talk more about Mr wormy head next week)
Unfortunately a lack of belief isn’t the only issue when it comes to stalling. In fact, there are a number of psychological flaws that fuck us up in the modern age.
One of those flaws is something behavioural scientists like to call hedonic adaptation or set point happiness. Something I like to refer to as the pursuit of unhappiness.
Harvard psychologist Tal Ben-Shahr, who coined the term “arrival fallacy”, describes it as living under the false illusion that once we make it (whatever that means) we will find the kind of lasting inner peace and contentment we desperately crave. Then, only then, we will live happily ever after.
But even when we do arrive, even when our wildest dreams are realised, that happiness is short lived. Despite sacrificing everything to achieve our dreams, it’s a mere “blip” on the radar of life. We immediately start thinking about the next best thing. How that next promotion, fatter paycheque, or faster car will give us everything we need.
This is because we all have a set-point of happiness. Some of us have a higher set point (bastards) while others have a lower set point (poor bastards), but the vast majority of us (regardless of sex, gender, age, class etc) lie somewhere in the middle.
And somewhere in the middle looks like this: “Life is okayish, I guess. Not bad, but not great either. Certainly room for improvement!”
Of course, this set point is continually reset based on our life circumstances. So, if we win the lottery for example, what happens? We’re happy for a while, because, well, we just won the fucking lottery! But, eventually, much quicker than we would like, we get used to it.
We get used to our new lavish lifestyle – we get used to the big mansion, the 5 sports cars, the jet-setting. The existential worm at the core catches up with us. (There he is again.) We start to feel that something is off. That money really isn’t everything. (Shocker!) That we didn’t want the world after all.
The good news is that hedonic adaptation works in reverse.
If you have a divorce, for example, or end up in accident that leaves you paralysed – studies have shown that although your life on paper becomes worse, you readjust. Things feels awful for a while, but then get use to this new normal. You accept it – sort of – and move back to your default level of slight dissatisfaction.
The problem is (here’s where I open my bay doors and drop a bombshell on you) we don’t see this.
The same way we think gaining that next promotion or winning the lottery will solve all our problems, we think that losing what we already have will be an unmitigated disaster that will end in the collapse of humanity itself (I may be exaggerating).
This is because we suffer from something known in psychology as loss aversion (which goes hand in hand with something else known as a negativity bias). Loss aversion states that, on average, the pain of losing something is three to four times greater than the happiness of having it.
Lettings go hurts – a lot!
This brings us to the next critical life lesson: We are terrible at predicting what will make us happy.
Mother Nature – that cruel mistress – wired us this way. She’s got us convinced that we need to keep climbing to the flight level above us, even though, in reality, it won’t make us any happier. On top of which she convinced us that letting go and descending to a lower altitude would be a massive mistake, even if the turbulence at our current one is unbearable.
The reason for this is simple: survival.
To think back a few thousand years – for the vast majority of our evolution – we really didn’t have much stuff. The stuff we did have was invariably necessary for our survival. So we clung to those things while going after whatever scraps we get our scrawny little mits on. We kept hunting and gathering because we needed to! We needed to save up for the inevitable rainy day. Of which there were many.
The grass is always greener for a good reason. Once upon a time, the grass was always greener.
To come back to issue of meaning. When our survival is at stake that’s meaning enough. But past a certain point, the issue isn’t about our survival but the survival of our things. We cling to our things – our jobs, our relationships, our privileged lifestyle, our beliefs – because those things define who we are. They’re what give our lives meaning.
And right now in the modern developed world at least, it seems we have everything to lose and very little to gain. This scares us to death – quite literally.
(I’ll pick this up next week.)
This is part two of a series of posts on the subject of stalling in life.
Part 1: Stalling: The Aerodynamics of Life
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