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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
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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