A Question From Future You: "Are You Being Honest With Yourself?"
We need to ask ourselves this question - and more than once -
or crisis might force us to down the line
It's not unusual to run on auto-pilot, particularly when life is hectic: the diary is packed, the to-do list is brimming, the days are full.
What is unusual (and beats being busy every time) is to take a step back - as frequently as we can - and reassess; to look at what we are doing and ask ourselves: "Am I being true to myself?"
This kind of question is a catch-all for an infinite number of variations:
"Is this who I am?"
"Is this what I want?".
"Am I heading in the right direction?"
"Did I mean what I just said?"
"Do I really think that?"
"Is this person right for me?"
"Is this job/career really what I am about?"
And so on. And, as with all of them, we will, at times dislike the answers we get.
And that's a key reason why we don't ask ourselves these types of questions in the first place.
Or, we simply don't think to.
The thing is, if we keep dodging them, they will eventually present themselves to us in a way that we cannot escape.
This is what a mid-life crisis is all about.
It's about having these very questions thrust starkly in front of us at a time when we feel they must be answered.
It's when we begin to accept a truth about something (or many things) that we have, perhaps, always known deep inside but ignored.
And that dereliction of duty has given us a life that isn't the one we actually want.
It becomes a crisis because by the time life forces us to confront this, it comes with a sense of urgency inevitably due to the age at which we are made to face it.
Changes, then, have to be made - and fast.
Paying The Price
This is when marriages fail, when careers implode and when nervous breakdowns come knocking.
It is anything but pleasant.
And it is anything but the hedonistic red sports-car-driving caricature of mid-life that is so often painted for us.
What's worse is that while it will take just minutes to undo a life that has been built over decades, it might very well take years to get to the New Life - and to get there in one piece.
Inevitably, by the time we do get there, a big part of us will have wished that we had listened to that voice inside our heads so many years earlier when it was whispering, "this person isn't right for you", or "your career is killing you".
While this form of radical self-honesty might seem a bit extreme, it doesn't always have to reach existential levels. And we don't have to wait for a crisis to make changes.
There are subtle ways we can tap into this "knowing" right at this very minute, before it reaches such a dramatic point that it is forced to become a wake-up call.
It is called congruence.
Congruence (and its opposite, incongruence) is a concept that was coined by a psychologist by the name of Carl Rogers, which Jordan Peterson delves into in each of the videos below.
Being congruent basically means aligning body, mind and spirit. It's when our beliefs, values and desires line up with our actions.
By its nature, it requires being in touch with what we really think, what we really stand for, what we really want, who we really want to be etc.
It means recognizing the little voice in our head and actually listening to it.
The Body's Messages
And as Peterson explains, if we can't hear the voice, our body will also tell us when we are out of step. In his words, acting incongruently will make us feel "weak".
This is not weak, as in the machismo sense - it is in the sense that acting "out of alignment" dis-empowers us, destabilises us internally, puts us on the back foot.
We all know, for example, what it feels like when something feels "off", or not quite right.
We have all had a "bad feeling" about something at some point in our lives or done something and wish we hadn't as it didn't feel like us.
We might agree to an arrangement and a big part of us wishes we hadn't. We might make a decision and feel conflicted about it. We might say something and immediately regret it. We might push forward with a plan but it feels empty. There's no life in it. We aren't all in.
And that's what this is really about - being all in.
Because there is only so long that we can coast along, living a half-life: being in relationships that aren't right for us, working jobs we hate, being friends with people who don't have our backs, failing to connect meaningfully with people who do.
It is a form of self-betrayal which eats away at us each time we say or do something that contradicts our true nature - frequently in such subtle ways we fail to notice it at the time, if we are not paying attention.
Until at some point, much later in life, we are made to.
And when that happens, there won't be a red sports car waiting for us.
It will be something very different, indeed.
The Elixir Of Life? How Feeling In Control Impacts Our Work Lives - And Our Longevity
Feeling powerless and helpless is a key factor behind anxiety and depression. There's a cure for that.
We can frequently find ourselves in incredibly demoralizing situations.
Take the average office. For many of us, it provides little more than a delightful daily cocktail of insufficient pay, mindbogglingly repetitive tasks and stifling levels of box-ticking.
Feeling like a cog in a wheel is hard enough when this is a job to pay the bills (rather than a step up the ladder to something greater).
It can become intolerable, however, when we are perpetually undermined, given insufficient freedom to make decisions and are left feeling overworked, undervalued and underpaid.
For many of us, quitting isn’t an option, which just compounds the misery we feel. We can’t take action to rectify the situation and the feeling of helplessness takes root, with no visible remedy in sight.
It‘s’ the perfect recipe for apathy, at best. Really, why bother?
Why Agency Matters
The reason why we get dragged down so much, says Johann Hari in this Big Think video, is that we have a strong psychological need for “agency” — the sense of being in control of the direction of our lives.
Having a lack of agency is a key factor behind work-related depression and anxiety, he says, quoting the work of Australian scientist, Michael Marmot:
"If you go to work and you feel controlled - you feel you have few or limited choices - you are significantly more likely to become depressed."
So what’s the answer when we feel beaten down and we lack this sense of control over our lives?
And the answer? Not surprisingly, it is to take back control.
The Need To Take Back Control
There are many ways we can do this.
The example Hari cites in the Big Think video might seem to be a bit too much of a jump for some right now but is instructive all the same.
In the case he highlights, a husband and wife quit their jobs to run a bike shop together. The act of being responsible for it had the inadvertent effect of combating their prior feelings of depression and anxiety.
This is great, but...
While we might aspire to do that (run our own show), we can’t always change our external environment at the click of our fingers.
The key, then, is to understand how we get that feeling of being in control in our everyday life.
A 1970's psychology study in a U.S. care home might give us some clues about how to achieve that.
In the late 1970's, esteemed Harvard psychologist Ellen Langer and her colleague Judith Rodin, conducted what was to become a landmark experiment in Arden House, a care home in New England.
What they did was deceptively simple but startlingly effective.
Langer and Rodin divided the residents into two groups, both of which were given plants to care for and films to watch, with a subtle variation in the parameters set around the control group.
While one group had everything done for them, the other was given the power to make decisions for themselves.
Nothing grand, they were simply given the ability to decide where and when they would receive visitors, if and when they would watch the films being shown and in what way they would care for their houseplants (how often they would water them, where they would place them in their rooms and so on).
The idea being, writes Langer in her book Counterclockwise, was to make this group feel actively engaged with the world around them — and less of a passive bystander.
The results were remarkable.
Eighteen months later, they revisited Arden House, compared the two groups and found that the control group were not only healthier, happier and more alert but twice as many of them were alive.
It raised the idea that not only is the feeling of control directly linked to happiness - it's linked to longevity, too.
What is so reassuring about this study, is that sometimes the desire to be in control of our lives can take on what feel like unreachable goals - we want to own a house, run our own business, be in a position of status. And, of course, these things might come.
But for the time in between, it is a relief to know that the things that markedly improve our happiness levels right now are the little decisions we are able to take every day - and knowing that there are always some aspects of our lives (if not all) that we are in control of.
What We Can Do Now
Even if it is just choosing what we focus on, there are always some aspects of our lives (if not all) that we are in control of — and they might be more vital to our long-term health and happiness than we realise.
Here are a few suggestions to get started: