A reality of being human is that there is just no way of knowing whether you have decades or moments left to live. I assume, at 47 years of age, that I still have many years ahead of me, but that belief puts me in the company of just about everyone whose lives have ended suddenly and unexpectedly. I know that this may sound depressing, but stay with me a bit longer - it gets more uplifting (I hope).
What do you do with the fact that you know that your life will end at some point in the future and you don't know when that point is? What do you do with the fact that there is no certainty about what life has in store for you next? How do you reconcile the inspirational advice "live each day as if it were your last" with the evidence that self-discipline and delayed gratification contribute to health and wellbeing?
My proposal? Grow. Grow until you are dead. After years of combing through thousands of studies and speaking to countless individuals, I see the practice of continual growth as being much more fruitful than the pursuit of happiness. Happiness, as it is frequently conceived, is the experience of comfort and pleasure. This is known as hedonic happiness, and it is only one facet of wellbeing. Another form, known as eudaimonic happiness, is the result of growth, meaning, and contribution. While eudaimonic happiness often increases one's hedonic happiness, the opposite is not necessarily true.
There is evidence that we are wired to grow. Learning something new, making new social connections, taking up a charitable cause, and starting a new hobby are all associated with longevity and life satisfaction. Growth is a possibility even in the face of traumatic events . In fact, after a major event such as 9/11 or Hurricane Katrina, the phenomenon of post-traumatic growth is three to five times more common in the population than post-traumatic stress disorder. Research has shown that a significant percentage of people who are presented with life altering and/or life threatening circumstances report positive long term effects such as a greater appreciation of life, better sense of priorities, more intimate relationships, new found personal strength, and recognition of new possibilities or paths for one's life. The trauma itself does not lead to growth, but the response of the individual - what she practices - is crucial in determining the extent of the growth after trauma.
So what do I mean by growth? I do not mean self-improvement. Focusing on growth is not an excuse to indulge perfectionism. I firmly believe that there is nothing wrong with you right now (despite what the voice in your head tells you). When I refer to growth, I am referring to an ever deepening insight into what is possible and into your capacity to act on those possibilities. The more you experience your life as one continual string of opportunities to act on what is important to you, the more you are inclined to explore, to engage, and to enjoy this moment. The way that you experience your life this way is through practice. What do I mean by practice? Deliberately being present, being positive, and being purposeful.
I cannot tell you how much time you or I have left to practice, but I can tell you that we do have this moment. If we practice in this moment, there is every reason to believe that we will be well-prepared for the next. If we have a few moments or many years left to live, is there a better way to spend them?
When your circumstances are not what you would choose:
Take a breath.
Bring your attention to what is actually happening - events, thoughts, and sensations.
Ask and answer:
"In what ways is this situation an opportunity for me to grow?"
"What is one small action that I can take to maximize this opportunity?"
"What are the thoughts and sensations that keep me from taking that action?"
"How much do those thoughts and sensations weigh?"
"How much space do those thoughts and sensations take up?"
"Do those thoughts and sensations have the physical properties necessary to stop me from taking action?"
Keyes, C. L., Shmotkin, D., & Ryff, C. D. (2002). Optimizing well-being: the empirical encounter of two traditions. Journal of personality and social psychology, 82(6), 1007.
Tedeshi, R.G., & Calhoun, L.G. (2004). Post-traumatic Growth: Conceptual Foundation and Empirical Evidence. Philadelphia, PA: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.