Most lives are lived by default

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Jamie lives in a large city in the midwest. He’s a copywriter for an advertising firm, and he’s good at it.

He’s also good at thinking of reasons why he ought to be happy with his life. He has health insurance, and now savings. A lot of his friends have neither. His girlfriend is pretty. They never fight. His boss has a sense of humor, doesn’t micromanage, and lets him go early most Fridays.

On most of those Fridays, including this one, instead of taking the train back to his suburban side-by-side, he walks to a downtown pub to meet his friends. He will have four beers. His friends always stay longer.

Jamie’s girlfriend Linda typically arrives on his third beer. She greets them all with polite hugs, Jamie with a kiss. He orders his final beer when she orders her only one. They take a taxi home, make dinner together, and watch a movie on Netflix. When it’s over they start a second one and don’t finish it. They have sex, then she goes to wash her face and brush her teeth. When she returns, he goes.

There was never a day Jamie sat down and decided to be a copywriter living in the midwest. A pair of lawyers at his ex-girlfriend’s firm took him out one night when he was freshly laid-off from writing for a tech magazine, bought him a hundred dollars worth of drinks and gave him the business card of his current boss. It was a great night. That was nine years ago.

His friends are from his old job. White collar, artsy and smart. If one of the five of them is missing at the pub on Friday, they’ll have lunch during the week.

Jamie isn’t unhappy. He’s bored, but doesn’t quite realize it. As he gets older his boredom is turning to fear. He has no health problems but he thinks about them all the time. Cancer. Arthritis. Alzheimer’s. He’s thirty-eight, fit, has no plans for children, and when he really thinks about the course of his life he doesn’t quite know what to do with himself, except on Fridays.

In two months he and Linda are going to Cuba for ten days. He’s looking forward to that right now.

***

A few weeks ago I asked everyone reading to share their biggest problem in life in the comment section. I’ve done this before — ask about what’s going on with you — and every time I do I notice two things.

The first thing is that everyone has considerable problems. Not simply occasional tough spots, but the type of issue that persists for years or decades. The kind that becomes a theme in life, that feels like part of your identity. By the sounds of it, it’s typical among human beings to feel like something huge is missing.

The other thing is that they tend to be one of the same few problems: lack of human connection, lack of personal freedom (due to money or family situations), lack of confidence or self-esteem, or lack of self-control.

The day-to-day feel and quality of each of our lives sits on a few major structures: where we live, what we do for a living, what we do with ourselves when we’re not at work, and which people we spend most of our time with. 

Making a major change in just one of these areas will necessarily make a major change in the feel and quality of your day-to-day life. It simply can’t stay the same.

Stay in the same city, but start hanging out with a completely different crowd, and life will change significantly. You will change. Stay in the same career but move cities, and your life also will change in a major way.

It might get better, or it might get worse. You don’t know until the change is made. This uncertainty is enough to keep most people from bothering.

But they should bother, as a rule. Day to day life is more likely to get better than worse, because a deliberate change gives you a chance to see if your new situation resonates with you or not, and gives you a second angle of the old one. If the new situation does resonate, then you’re closer to finding what’s right for you, what’s optimal for your sense of well-being.

If it doesn’t resonate with you, then you have more perspective about what it is that you already do that you like so much. Your values become clearer, and you gravitate toward them more strongly. If you leave the countryside for the city and hate it, then you’ve definitely learned more about what it is about the countryside that really does something for you. That’s progress. That’s getting closer to what you want.

Living with the die roll

For Jamie, and for most of us, those four major structures were not decided consciously. The career you end up working in depends chiefly on what you saw as options when you were just starting to enter the workforce. That was a very narrow period of time, during which you were only aware of a limited number of options. You went with whatever made sense at that time. The result — what you do today — is more or less happenstance.

Friends too, are mostly in our lives as defaults. Most of us have found some incredible and inspiring people just by letting happenstance deliver them, but once we have some stable friendships we become complacent and stop actively looking for friends that really resonate with our values and interests, if we ever did at all.

Where you live is even more random, more difficult to change, and it may have the greatest effect of all the structures, because it determines the rest. You were born somewhere. If you moved, it was probably for work or for a relationship. A minority of people do move to a particular city because they think they’ll be happier there than anywhere else. They are seeking the optimum place to live for their values, or at least close to it. But most of us become too established in one place to seriously consider moving once we hit 30.

Friends, location and career tend to define the other one: what you do with your time. Your habits and your hobbies. Your routines, your typical saturday night activities, your wardrobe, your pursuits and personal projects are all suggested by (and constrained by) what your defaults are in the other categories. If you happened to grow up in Nebraska, you probably don’t surf. But surfing might just be the thing that really would turn your crank like nothing else, if you were lucky enough to discover that.

So much of our lives consists of conditions we’ve fallen into. We gravitate unwittingly to what works in the short term, in terms of what to do for work and what crowd to run with. There’s nothing wrong with living from defaults, necessarily, but think about it: what are the odds that the defaults delivered to you by happenstance are anywhere close to what’s really optimal for you?

In other words, we seldom consciously decide how we’re going to live our lives. We just end up living certain ways.

In all likelihood, what you’ve inherited is nowhere near what’s best for you. Chances are very slight that there isn’t a drastically better neighborhood for you out there, a more kindred circle of peers, a much better line of work, and a much more rewarding way to go about your day than the way you do. Your level of fulfillment and sense of peace with the world depend on how well-matched your values are to the life you’re actually living. There’s no reason to believe they’ll match well by accident.

The most natural-feeling course for your life is to do what you’re accustomed to doing, live where you’re accustomed to living, seek what you’re accustomed to seeking. So be careful. I’m convinced that all of my major problems — and many of the problems in the comment section of the What’s your problem post — are due to going with the defaults, either too afraid or too oblivious to make major changes to them.

As a culture, we do a whole lot of maintaining, rationalizing, procrastinating and reinforcing, and not very much thinking about what’s really best for us and the drastic changes we might need to make to get there.

So what does this mean? It means if you’re a normal person you can expect that a lot of categories of your life are set up in highly inefficient ways, by default. Certain areas of life could be all wrong for you and you have no idea how good it could be on other side of the fence. It also means that wherever you recognize a persistent source of grief in your life, there is probably a different way to set up your life that could eliminate it or greatly reduce it. It could be a major change, like ending your marriage, or it could just be moving to a different neighborhood in the same city.

Major changes are intimidating, but think about it — most of the time when you hear somebody talk about making a major change in their life, like changing cities or careers, a year later they’ll say it put them in a far better place. They tell you they don’t know how they lived before.

That’s a feeling worth seeking out. That specific feeling — which comes in the wake of a major change — of wondering how you ever got along before.

The bottom lines, if I haven’t been clear:

It is typical in human lives to feel like something huge is missing or unsettled.

It is typical for the major aspects of a human life (career, friends, habits and home) to be decided by happenstance, and not consciously.

The feeling of something huge being missing is probably often due to a serious mismatch between what you currently have in one of those aspects, and what is best for you in one of those aspects.

Making conscious changes to the aspects of life you’ve accepted by default can result in dramatic and immediate changes to quality of life.

Few people do this. Few people make a deliberate quest out of finding their perfect city or neighborhood, of seeking out their truly like-minded. Most of us live seventy or eighty years defending what we’ve been given, because we think it’s who we are.

At any given time, the prospect of a major change will tend to seem out of the question. This is because you believe you are what you’ve been doing this whole time. From the other side of a major change, the thought of continuing the with way things were will seem absurd.

But identity is fluid. You’ve been becoming a different person this whole time, and after making a dramatic change, you might find you’re more yourself than you’ve ever been.

***

Photo by Fabio Bruna

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{ 131 Comments }

Anon December 6, 2012 at 12:39 pm

About a year ago, I found myself struggling with suicidal thoughts. It was because I ended up without friends, no girlfriend and because it was my 3rd year being unemployed. I was 31 years old. My country is still in turmoil. The unemployment rates keep rising, salaries drop like dizzy flies and there are people in this planet who would tell me with a straight face “your happiness is internal”.

I would gladly post a response to them. A year ago.

level09 December 6, 2012 at 12:56 pm

I totally agree with David, it is actually funny that I have decided to leave to a new city next year, then I get this article that confirms my thoughts ..

Sam December 6, 2012 at 1:38 pm

Sure, being for ever unsatisfied is a constant of human existence, but does it really signal something is wrong?

If this feeling is truly an inevitable part of life, then changing your work, friends, location or hair color are all as meaningless as our never ending attempts at immortality (giving up smoking, going to the gym, that extra round of chemo they say might buy you a couple of years at best, those extra nights in the lab so that you might do something that people will remember after you are too dead to care).

If we can’t solve this problem, we should focus on the problems we can solve. This restlessness is not the opposite of happiness, and happiness is not the same as fulfillment. I’d argue that you should seek both, sometimes by making changes, but often by knowing when to stick.

So for a decade, you live a life full of change. I know I have – I’ve moved every year for the last ten. Been a grad student, a programmer, a biologist, a sales, and even an unemployed person living in a project. Every time I moved city, job, I lost and made a set of friends. All of these were very rich and different experiences.
And right now, I wish more than anything, that I had stayed with that girl I loved so dearly back at college. That I’d put up with her crap, made it work, made a life with her. We are simple creatures, and beyond this facade of signs and simulacra, medicine and machines, our brains reward us with happiness and full fulfillment when we live in small, tight groups, for a long time, and have children.

You talk about values, and urge us to seek a life that better fulfills them. Maybe there is a happiness in that. But our lives also shape our values. Our friends, the roles we fill, shape what we think good is.
So by choosing the components of our lives, we are also choosing the components of our values. Perhaps we should shape values that are achievable, that are not too abstract or too brief.

Anyway, don’t drop the bird in your hand to scratch a phantom limb.

jastibral January 14, 2013 at 8:41 pm

Good. Very good!

Lou February 26, 2013 at 11:11 pm

hmm, meaninglessness… sounds like you have had a time of your life being happy and in love. and you’ve faced a lot of change and complexity over the ensuing years, realizing the preciousness of what you once had, wanting to simplify things. Don’t give up! Look for the inspired people around you who desire the same things and have a similar level of experience in life, is one of the main messages of this article.

Erik Johnson December 6, 2012 at 10:50 pm

Interesting thoughts. Inertia is very powerful. Newton’s first law, right? It controls most people’s destinies. I’m working on a project of passion over here: http://www.lifegrid.co. The goal is to stir people up – to visualize their lifetime. Let me know your thoughts!

Voochuk December 6, 2012 at 10:52 pm

Tomorrow is an illusion – there is no change, there is no destination, there is nothing missing – everything that has and will ever be exists in this very moment. Are you living this and every moment to its fullest ? Unlikely, if you are preoccupied with thoughts of what/where I should have been in the past or where/what I should be tomorrow.
Ernest Hemingway -
“So if your life trades seventy years for seventy hours I have that value now and I am lucky enough to know it. And if there is not any such thing as a long time, nor the rest of your lives, nor from now on, but there is only now, why then now is the thing to praise and I am very happy with it.”

jastibral January 14, 2013 at 8:49 pm

Interesting. So whats wrong with being happy, content and excited with what you have and where you are? Nothing. Make things better, or different than they are if and when you can. But don’t lose out on the good that you have now.

Jason December 7, 2012 at 12:35 am

28 “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

That pretty much sums it up for me. Thank God for God, man.

Pete R. December 7, 2012 at 12:43 am

Holy crap, this article is deep! You’ve perfectly illustrated the root of the problem divided it into categories and explained how it all related.

This is one of those article that I will recommend to all human I know to read. Since I live in Asia (Bangkok, Thailand to be precise), these problems can be resonated very quickly for me. Most people here are very conservative. They usually complained about their lives, their work etc. and yet they did nothing to change it. Hopefully this article will encourage them to do something about it. :)

Keep up the great work, David!

Peter December 7, 2012 at 3:46 am

So, basically you are pushing people into the gaping abyss of the uncertainty changes usually imply. Don’t do that. People really like consistency.

Nick Knudson December 7, 2012 at 7:00 pm

Reminds me exactly of David Foster Wallace’s “This is Water” speech.

“This is Water” Part 1: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M5THXa_H_N8
“This is Water” Part 2: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uSAzbSQqals

Great article.

Tomek October 14, 2013 at 10:03 am

One of my favorite speeches ^_^. The whole thing is available on youtube, though, in one part, if you search “This is Water David wallace”

Steve December 7, 2012 at 7:37 pm

I can’t believe no one has mentioned the concept of “satisfying”. Satisficers choose the first thing that meets their decision making criteria. Satisficers tend to be more happy about their decisions. David didn’t mention that there can be a very high searching cost to find the optimal choice and it is often better to stick with something near optimal.

For example he mentions: “Chances are very slight that there isn’t a drastically better neighborhood for you out there”. That may be true, but my current apartment/neighborhood is pretty good: reasonable rent, biking distance to work, decent space, and quiet neighbors. I’m not willing to go through the huge hassle of moving to a different neighborhood and risk a worse place for a small incremental improvement.

The same thing is true with spouses. In a world of 6 billion people is it likely that there is someone that you would get along better with than your current spouse? Yes. Does that mean you should break up with the one you love to try to find it? No!

Happiness Myth No. 4: You’ll Be Happier If You Insist on “The Best.”
http://www.happiness-project.com/happiness_project/2009/03/happiness-myth-no-4-youll-be-happier-if-you-insist-on-the-best/

Maximizing is a very NYC attitude:
http://blog.penelopetrunk.com/2012/02/14/the-real-value-of-diversity

Celarent December 7, 2012 at 8:04 pm

I must respectfully disagree with the central premise of this article (and I daresay a lot of cutting edge research into the psychology of happiness and fulfilment backs me up on this score). Unhappiness generally feels as though something is missing. But what is missing is happiness and its not to be found by randomly upending your life and going somewhere unknown (at best that gives you a 50/50 chance the place you end up will be better and not worse than the place you left behind and in any case there is a 100% chance your happiness issues will go with you. There is certainly a good case to be made that we should live more deliberately and not just accept the vicissitudes of fate as our lot, but living deliberately means making choices based on evidence. So to be really happy, one has to first be open to the idea that happiness is possible where and when you find yourself right now (because it is and lots of research can back that up that happiness is in fact a state of mind and not a state of material existence) then find the things that make you most happy in your current life (generally this will be things like spending time with friends and family, spirituality, pursuing passions etc) and then follow those consciously wherever they may lead you. That, I think, is a better prescription for happiness. Change, in and of itself, is not going to make you happier or more fulfilled if it is not directed by real insight into what it is that makes you happy and more fulfilled (and contrary to what we think and believe, happiness and fulfillment are always most inherent in the here and now, they don’t exist in the future or ‘out there somewhere’. I’m paraphrasing, if not directly channeling the Dalai Lama here, his book on the subject ‘The Art of Happiness’ is well worth a read. Forgive me for going on and on.

Wesley December 8, 2012 at 12:14 pm

I enjoyed the article and I agree that a lot of lives are lived by default but I had the same feeling as @Celarent after reading the article. You shouldn’t have to make drastic external changes to acquire inner fulfilment, self-esteem, etc. Change your mind, change your reality.

Loic Antoine-Gombeaud December 8, 2012 at 12:47 am

To hell with living by default. Love your article. Thanks for voicing it out in words.

Srinivas December 9, 2012 at 9:55 am

“If you happened to grow up in Nebraska, you probably don’t surf. But surfing might just be the thing that really would turn your crank like nothing else, if you were lucky enough to discover that.”

You know there is no way you could write about that and not expect me to comment on that. I went to bschool in Malibu and it took living in Brazil for me to become a surfer. We take so much of the world around us for granted. Many of of the choices because we weren’t given other options. In my manifesto I even said “the lives we lead are the byproduct of prescriptions and formulas that we’ve been force fed.” As far as surfing goes, to say it changed my life would be an understatement. It reignited my ambition, spirit and zest for life. I could write about it for days. I do :)

kt December 9, 2012 at 5:11 pm

i feel lucky, i did manage to consciously decide where to live and what to do. i chose a small, walkable city with most things i want (library, big park, train station, some independent stores), found a flat within walking distance of the key points in my life. and my job came directly from my favourite lectures at uni. but most of this is because i had three months between uni and starting an internship and what felt like real adult life, during which time i realised that i had the ability, now, to chose what ‘real adult life’ as opposed to ‘student lift’ looked like for me. so i did and currently, i’m very happy with it.

Milan December 10, 2012 at 2:17 am

Thanks man =)

opyate December 10, 2012 at 7:41 am

David Foster Wallace also mentioned the default setting of our lives in his Kenyon address: http://moreintelligentlife.co.uk/story/david-foster-wallace-in-his-own-words

Adam December 10, 2012 at 2:14 pm

It’s easy to keep on living life by “default”. In a way we get addicted to our jobs and our lives. There are things we may not like but it generally either takes a lot of courage or a total bottoming out to make any real changes. It’s much easier to stay the course and be mildly unhappy than to wander off into the unknown. After all the unknown could be worse than what we are clinging to.

It seems like when we are mildly (or even majorly unhappy) we do things that tend to keep us right where we are. We’ll drink more than we should at happy hour, eat more and exercise less, buy a bunch of stuff we don’t need because we “deserve it” and get a momentary high from the purchase while adding clutter to our lives and draining out bank accounts. We might even buy a bigger house or get a bigger apartment for all that stuff.

I wandered down that road for quite along time but managed to control those impulses, live on a little more than a shoestring for about 10 years while siting in a cubicle staring and at a computer screen until I could barely drag myself in there each morning. When I turned 36 I quit. It was time for a break. The plan was to go out to Utah and ski for two months. Almost 3 years later I’m still wandering the country, camera in hand exploring the most amazing sights the US, Canada and a few other places have to offer.

I generally get by on between $700 to $1,500 a month, sleep in my car more often than not and wake up in places like Yellowstone, Crater Lake, Zion, The Grand Canyon, Glacier National Park and many other places “in between the airports”. The first time I slept in my car it was when I just started out and I got caught in a snowstorm. I freaked out. Then I discovered if I slept in the car more often than not, I could see and experience a lot more so I got used to it.

By the end of next year, the journey will have gone through all the US National Parks (many multiple times), and most everything in between. The first step is getting your finances under control and making more or spending less. Once you do that you can begin to dream and then go live the dream.

I’m not sure when exactly or where it will end but I’ve already seen and done more in the last three years than most people will in a lifetime. Soon, the hardest thing will be to come up with a bucket list. I’ve already worked my way through a few of them and wandered into places I never knew existed.

There is a (slightly behind) blog that details it all – http://www.SkiAnything.com/ When there is time to take a break from the road, the latest sights and adventures will continue to be posted.

pepa December 25, 2012 at 9:05 am

I dont believe this is true, for me it sounds like a first world problem. Which I believe is true is this saying “grasp all, lose all”. Sorry enjoyed the text but perhaps Jamie would be more fulfilled if he just signed to help others.

Godfrey Wilson January 14, 2013 at 5:10 am

In the deep heart of man is a shrine where none but God is worthy to come. Our woes began when God was forced out of His central shrine and “things” were allowed to enter. Within the human heart “things” have taken over. Men have now by nature no peace within their hearts, for God is crowned there no longer. Jesus referred to this tyranny of things when He said to His disciples, “If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.” – A W Tozer

Palmina March 3, 2013 at 10:44 pm

I liked this piece but I have a little problem with it. I’ve thought a lot about how life is just a random series of happenstances based on where you live, so that much is completely true. Yet, at the risk of sounding like a Marxist, life is also so heavily based on the socioeconomic status you were born into that I can’t help but point out that this article applies to a very specific group of people — that is, people who have the financial freedom to change their situation when they’re unhappy. I’m beginning to think the amount of people who can do that is greatly decreasing all over the world, so, an inspiring article for us economically disadvantaged people would be so much more meaningful.

Lena March 14, 2013 at 2:13 am

Wow. I’ve had these suspicions my whole life. Except I thought there was something wrong with me. I felt out of place in my home town, with my family & the friends I grew up with. A few years ago I moved to a big city & went back to school to study design. My new city felt like home instantly. I have a new circle of like minded friends & a boyfriend who shares my liberal values & passions. When I think about my home town, I get anxious. Like this new life is just a dream & any day now I’ll wake up and have never left.

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Victor March 19, 2013 at 10:45 am

As somebody who has moved 9 times in the past 7 years and 12 times in my entire life (I’m currently 27) I’ll have to say that this article does not dig deep enough in terms of human psychology and offers only a surface solution to a set of otherwise obscure, underlying issues. It posits bravery and an appetite for willfulness and change as an antidote for restlessness and fear. Although this sounds good at first, it really turns out to be a case of the grass being greener on the other side, and once the luster of novelty runs out, the grass becomes greener somewhere else.

I find that on a deeper lever, our burning desire for change is simply a desire to escape ourselves. It’s a constant tendency to run away from who we truly are, from the wounds that the past has inflicted on us and from our deep, dark, subconscious selves. I feel that the only way to understand the true nature of this subconsciously lurking wanderlust is through real meditation, self-honesty, self-discovery and introspection. That, or seeing a psychologist.

Cheers

david teng March 24, 2013 at 4:51 pm

Its great,and i learned lot! thanks!

Allea April 8, 2013 at 7:01 pm

I recently went through that major change. I was planning on becoming a novelist and artist, what I’d planned on since I was little, What I didn’t realize was that it was my intense curiosity that drove everything I wrote and created. However I SUCKED at math in high-school, but I’d hit a dead-end.

So I tried math and physics and LOVED it!

Now I’m working on huge levels of anxiety that I found hidden around that corner, but I’m happier than I have ever, even if it drives me nuts and makes me angry, it keeps me thinking and growing as a person. I’ve been endlessly out of my comfort zone all year, have cried what seems like a millions times, feel like I’m going to leap out of my skin from panic attacks….

But, believe it or not… I’m happy. :)

Genevieve Hawkins April 22, 2013 at 10:21 am

“Aggressively, we all defend the role we play” The Killers. I liked the quotes by Rumi too…great food for thought in the article and the comments section.
Been there, done that, for change. My life is not lived by default–I couldn’t be more random. Born in Ohio, currently living in Thailand. Got married last year ( a first for me), my husband has never been to America (Something I’d like to change soon). I have a newborn daughter, my second child, after leaving a seven year relationship with my first baby daddy, a man who kept me just comfortable enough to stay in the relationship for so long. He wasn’t abusive in an obvious way, but used what psychologists call gaslighting on a very regular basis–a tactic to keep me off balance and question my own sanity. Enough about that.
Many people do stay in their comfort zone well beyond its usefullness. On the side before the change, there are all sorts of justifications for staying there, almost all based on fear (guilt about doing something to hurt someone else is also a fear based emotion). On the other side of a long term, meaningful change, you look back and can’t believe you stayed in that old life for as long as you did. But there are a lot of points between A and B….the destination should always be the same, which is happiness in this life, in this moment, doing whatever you’re doing, with whomever you’re doing it with, wherever you are. The direction will be different for everyone. A few lucky people (my best friend in Ohio is like this) will travel a bit and realize their happiness is right back in their hometown. But the vast majority will talk about how if they had (money, a girlfriend, a husband, a baby, a big boat) then they would be happy. There’s nothing more annoying than hearing that same old story year after year.
Regarding leaving a spouse for your own happiness but then causing them hurt…it depends on the situation. For me I realized at some point that the personal growth and happiness of me, my baby daddy, and my child was stunted by staying in the relationship. Sometimes when you’re locked into a negative pattern in a relationship, it is bringing you both down, with only one party realizing it. Sometimes that negative can be fixed by a change which both of you go through together, sometimes it can’t. A change of scenery or job might not be enough to change your mind.
These are first world problems, really. Many people in developing nations are much closer to the reality of death, for both better and worse. For better because they are more willing embrace change and see life as a constant flow.For worse because they lack the resources to make meaningful change. Or at least that’s how I see it.
At the end of the day, you can’t take your stuff with you. Your experiences will provide more richness than things. What will provide the most enduring happiness is giving freely to others (time, energy, positive thoughts, encouragment, money, whatever is most needed). That can have a legacy that lasts beyond your life, especially if its given for children. But you have to have it to give it…so in a way, your happiness has to come first. Worrying about anyone else’s is your own thoughts projecting anyways!

Doolittle April 25, 2013 at 3:19 am

Wow, thanks Genevieve. I really needed to see your perspective. It balanced the thought-meal for me.

My mind is satiated.

Jason March 6, 2014 at 5:04 pm

This whole thing is a top first world discussion- really a top half of the first world discussion. The idea that you can just change jobs or cities or relationships without disaster striking implies that you have slack in your life—that if something goes wrong with your change, you can recover. This is simply not true for the vast majority of humans. They’re locked into their lives because of poverty, not fear.

Yuna May 10, 2013 at 12:59 am

“…a deliberate change gives you a chance to see if your new situation resonates with you or not, and gives you a second angle of the old one. If the new situation does resonate, then you’re closer to finding what’s right for you, what’s optimal for your sense of well-being…”

The concept of deliberately changing your life to find if a new situation is better for you, or to get a new angle of the old situation sounds like an ideal, but I just want to warn people that it doesn’t often work out like that.
I speak from my own experience. I was still 17 when I made the decision to leave my small town, and my country to go to college in America. I jumped at the chance of studying and travelling across Europe. I worked in London. And I tried dating different men throughout.

At 22, I was lonelier and unhappier than ever before. I then made the decision to move back to my home country. And now I am dating the same high school boyfriend I had loved deeply, but broken up with so that I could experience the world, to see what else is out there. Needless to say, the relationship is very fragmented and probably past the point of repair.

People describe me as brave and admire me for having traveled so much of the world on my own. But these days, I often think that I would probably have been a happier, and more content had I chosen to stay in my country, continue dating my high school boyfriend, and probably be happily married to him in the coming few years. However, I burned too many bridges during my quest for self discovery.

An itch to figure out what else is out there doesn’t mean what you have is not already the best for you.

Shailendra Saiwal May 21, 2013 at 9:05 am

“Until and unless you have lost your reputation,
you will never realize what a burden it was !! ”

That is all I have to say.

Ellen May 31, 2013 at 6:10 am

Fantastic post David! Lately I’ve been starting each day reading one of your posts…I find them inspiring, challenging and validating…and they percolate through me as I go about my day. I had been feeling a little stagnant in my growth when I stumbled across your site (I had recently become vegan and was googling something related to that transition and found your post on becoming vegan for 30 days…so awesome!). Now I feel like I’m really moving again…your ideas and insights are really resonating deeply. It’s interesting because few of your ideas are entirely new to me…over time I’ve arrived at many similar insights…but there’s just something almost magical…some kind of ‘chemistry’ that happens when my mind encounters the way that you articulate your ideas and insights. It causes me to re-visit these ideas and insights on a deeper level; to essentially kick me into another layer of growth, and strip away more layers of the bullshit that ultimately doesn’t matter. I think that few of us know the real impact that we have on others…and I’d like you to know how much who you are and what you do is impacting my life…and I’m very very grateful.:)

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Wojtek Krzyzosiak June 19, 2013 at 2:25 am

Do Maths. Nothing can compare to it.

Michael September 7, 2013 at 10:18 pm

Very interesting read. But I really couldn’t disagree more about its conclusions.

The first two bottom lines, are true from observation:
- It is typical in human lives to feel like something huge is missing or unsettled.

- It is typical for the major aspects of a human life (career, friends, habits and home) to be decided by happenstance, and not consciously.

But the resulting conclusion:
“The feeling of something huge being missing is probably often due to a serious mismatch between what you currently have in one of those aspects, and what is best for you in one of those aspects.”

Is missing the point, in my opinion and knowledge. The feeling of something “is missing”, “incomplete”, “imperfect”, and that general “not there yet” is driven by the fantasy that “only if I change this and that” then I’ll be happy. That is merely a state of mind, and illusion. It might, for a very real and very short period of time make a positive impact on your life. You will make that big change, feel satisfied that you were brave enough to break out of the box of society, but then you just sink back into routine or just keep making changes, never finding that thing that you’re looking for.
Unhappiness is not because you are here and not there, Unhappiness is the idea that there is something better. That’s what keeps you from being unhappy.

Also, you assume that if a life choice was made by coincidence then it is is in high probability will fit someone less than a consciously-made one. Why? You gave an example of someone living in Nebraska that might love surfing. Someone living in Nebraska deciding to learn to surf seems just plain *random* and has nothing to do with seriously thought of and weighted choice.

I agree that we should experiment with our lives to, do different things, why not. But if that doing is always accompanied with the notion of “something different will make me happy”, then it will simply always be true.
No matter what you do, no matter where or who you are, you will think that something different will make you happy. Therefore, you will not be happy.

My inspiration for this point of view is derived a lot from Buddhism, obviously, but I would refer anyone reading my comment to The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle as a good starting point to realising why they are unhappy and what they can really do to change it.

All that said, I’m not advocating staying in miserable situations. If you’re in a bad relationship, end it. If you absolutely hate your job, you should probably quit it (if improving the situation is not possible/didn’t work). If you can find a more interesting job for you, what the heck, go for it. But the “perfect” thing might and might not exist, but is certainly can be found right here, right now.

Krista October 4, 2013 at 1:52 pm

This is exactly what I try to express to people, but never really knew quite how to. This is GREAT! I love what you write about, and how you write about it… It is so clear and in depth. Thank you so much!!!

Jack October 13, 2013 at 1:35 am

Love this post! I made a reference to it in my latest: http://jackassanalysis.com/how-to-feel-fantastic-and-improve-your-health/ It’s amazing how we’re never taught to optimize our lives, even just the simple trick of trying something new every once in a while would lead to huge benefits for most of the population. The bit on friends especially, you generally become who you spend the most time with, I think it’s a consequence of genetics, the book The Blank Slate by a guy studying the brain at MIT has a good chapter on it regarding kids and how they adapt to their environments by absorbing local cultures and losing their parents cultures when moving to a new country, it’s a fundamental adaptation for survival, and you can use it to your advantage if you deliberately find the circles of friends that you admire and want to be like.

Nikriosity October 25, 2013 at 11:19 am

Brilliant thoughts David. I echo with your ideas completely.

Amanda November 5, 2013 at 2:08 pm

I agree with this too actually. I was in a relationship for 5 years when I moved to the next state over for grad school. We were only 4.5 hours apart though so it wasn’t a big deal. I actually thought it made the relationship stronger because when we did get to see each other, we appreciated it that much more and had so much fun instead of just being stuck in a boring routine. But there was a big problem we had at that time too…it had been something that was a problem for 2 years already. When I moved for school, the issue came up but it wasn’t as prevalent probably because we didn’t see each other every day like before. I got accepted for a commission in the Air Force literally 2 weeks after I started grad school…this was the problem. I say it was a problem for 2 years because during that time, I was talking to recruiters and taking all sorts of tests. He didn’t want me to join (that’s another story but the root of the problem). I knew it was something I really wanted to do though so I went for it. Another year passed and we ultimately broke up and I left for the AF. I don’t regret any of it. Looking back on that relationship, I should have left sooner. I reflected back on conversations I had with friends when I was still with him and alot of what I said about him to them was fairly negative. Not that he abused me (he didn’t) but he hated everything and was just a downer and I didn’t realize how much he brought me down with him until I left. I think that’s why our relationship got better when I moved for school…because I didn’t have to deal with that everyday and when we did see each other, we both were really happy. You’re so right that when there’s a drastic change of some sort, you can compare how things were vs how they are now. But with new change does come a new set of problems (which you also mentioned). So I left my ex, now I’m single and come home to an empty apartment everyday (which is where I am right now) and it can be very depressing. I guess it seems like there will always be something missing. Who knows though, I’ll be leaving to a new base soon so I look forward to the change and hopefully I’ll meet someone awesome and we can share the adventure together :)

Kaushik December 22, 2013 at 12:47 am

In my experience, it hasn’t been about finding the perfect city for me, or in general about changing my external circumstances.

It’s been about awakening–facing up to delusions and fears and moving towards consciousness and clarity.

Thanks, your articles are very thought-provoking.

Peter December 25, 2013 at 10:18 am

I want to promote Meeup.com here. This is a Web site idea that builds community and freindship. Sign up for your interests, then go out an meetu like-minded people at the venues. It can be anything, which can include anything under the sun. If you can’t find your interest, start one. I currently have a French conversation group and a coffee lover shop group in Brighton, UK. I moved to Brighton from the USA, and Meetup has been a strong component of my making new friends.

kerri May 22, 2014 at 8:26 pm

Awesome article D!! But imo there needs to be clarification on taking care of yourself and what some are calling selfish. I think if you truly take care of yourself, meaning not just pandering to the ego (selfish), you are at the same time taking care of others. Honestly almost never does anyone win in a situation where someone does something or doesn’t to not “hurt” someone.If it’s true that ideally everyone is responsible for their own happiness, then who are you really hurting if you neglect your own? We you could say have actually a responsibility as part of the larger group of humans to take care of ourselves. Then we can be in a position to give of ourselves to others and help them and inspire them to do the same. The motive is love, not fear.

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