There is no reality except the one contained within us. That is why so many people live such an unreal life. They take the images outside of them for reality and never allow the world within to assert itself.
― Hermann Hesse
The following thoughts are drawn from my personal experience, from studying and working, and from thinking about how to live a good life—and they’re a work in progress. They don’t apply fully for everyone, and won’t apply at all for some. I hope that there will be utility for the majority of readers. These considerations have a basis in research, drawing upon, for example, factors shown to contribute to resilience; cognitive behavioral strategies to address anxiety and depression symptoms; mindfulness- and compassion-based practice; self-care and good self-relationship; and an overarching psychoanalytic sensibility favoring inquiry and candor.
Generally, when things are going well, we have a healthy sense of influence over our own lives, striving neither for rigid control nor feeling powerless.
1. You wake up looking forward to meaningful and enjoyable experiences.
If you have been thoughtful about your own needs, you will have set up your days so that there are at least two or three experiences each day, most days, for which you have positive expectations. But you won’t be excessively preoccupied with them or overly dependent on them. These experiences may be related to your formal activities, work, school or family, but they may lie outside the scope of what you have scheduled.
It could be a few minutes of meditation; it could be a book or show you enjoy; it could be catching up with current events or following up on a personal interest; it could be reaching out to a friend; and so on. It can be something little, just a few minutes. You’ve made sure there is something you enjoy, something which meets your basic needs and gives you a sense of having taken care of yourself. Even when life is challenging, the times during the day you have made for yourself serve as anchors.
2. You are generally glad to be alive, even if you have moments of doubt.
Everyone experiences stress from time to time, and stress can be positive or negative, but it’s always a potential opportunity for growth and learning. Many of us face great challenges, stress which is unremitting, or even grow adverse to the point of becoming traumatic. We can get out of touch with a sense of aliveness, and the environment can make it hard for us to be grounded in what is important to us. Work, for example, can lead to disillusionment and cynicism, and we tend to be shaped by the environments we are in. Even during life’s most challenging times, addressing major tragedies, and even mortality, can be approached in many different ways.
On the more mundane level, an unstable workplace, difficulties in our home lives, and both surprise and chronic problems can make our own identity feel shaky, and make it easy to disconnect from ourselves and from others, or feel hopeless and despairing. Checking out emotionally can be useful in the short run, and it is normal to feel hopeless from time to time, but it can become habitual, a form of experiential avoidance as a way of life, even becoming a clinical issue (in which case professional help is recommended).
Short of developing a clinical condition, however, when this happens we are not present at all, and as a consequence are out of touch with the basic sense of vitality we need to energize us and sustain a realistically optimistic outlook, cognitive flexibility, and the desire to constantly challenge ourselves in meaningful ways. When we wake up and set our intention to live each day fully and to be present, knowing that it takes work and isn’t always going to go as planned (deviations from plan are also potential opportunities), it is an indication we are heading in the right direction.
3. You appreciate all stages of life, looking forward to the future, learning from the past, and staying grounded in the present.
Part of tending to oneself means having a sense of a larger context while being in the moment. This implies several things. Having a sense of oneself over time, past, present and future, is one part. Even if we don’t feel a full sense of continuity, we can have a sense of an arc over time, like the narrative threads of our own play. We can be grounded in the past without being destructively obsessed, focusing on what we can learn and use, rather than fixating on what was bad. We can project ourselves forward into the future with a flexible and expectant point of view, rather than being stuck on specific ideas. We can cultivate a sense of healthy self-governance over time, tending to ourselves while also being with ourselves in the moment. We can look forward to the future, rather than dreading it.
4. You go to sleep reasonably satisfied with the day and look forward to resting.
The end of the day is a time of transition and a test of how we are living. Without giving too much power to each day, pay attention to how you feel toward the evening. Pay attention to and take time to reflect on how each day has been lived, what worked, what was challenging, what we’ve learned. Some days we feel amazing, other days perhaps regretful, preferably most of the time satisfied. What we need from each day varies from person to person, and it is important to recognize our own individual needs and move toward meeting them, including our need to care for others and meet the demands of the world.
In the evening, take some time to consider intentions and goals for the next day, and then let those thoughts rest. If we have a general sense of satisfaction free from perfectionistic expectations, we can sleep well knowing we have tended to our concerns and plan to continue to do so. Looking forward to sleep, rather than dreading it, is a good indicator of managing our days well.
5. People you appreciate and who appreciate you are a regular part of your day-to-day experience, even if some days they are only in your thoughts.
We aren’t all social butterflies, spending time with lots of people every day. Sometimes we appear to be very social, but even when with others are lonely on the inside. People don’t always know how we really feel, and we are generally pretty good at putting on a mask. Social pressure to appear happy, among other things, can strengthen self-deception. When we have meaningful relationships, even with people we don’t talk to all the time, we hold those relationships within ourselves, an important source of resilience and companionship which frames each day with the perception of solid social support, and the experience of loving and being loved. Social media can be detrimental, but it can be a good tool to maintain contact with important people as well.
6. You have a sense of being happy to see how life unfolds, even when you don’t have a clear path.
Curiosity is one of the hallmarks, in my experience, of being on a good path. Rather than coming from self-blame, criticism of others, a sense of dissatisfaction, or even chronic injury, staying with a curious stance sets the stage in important ways. First, curiosity puts the brain in a positive state, flexible and open to possibility, rather than looking to confirm our often-negative expectations. Even if we have positive expectations, they can be too rigid, leading to disappointment and collapse when things don’t go according to plan. Curiosity creates possibility regardless of what happens.
Curiosity also helps to maintain a reflective, mindful stance, permitting engagement with emotional experiences without being swallowed up and overwhelmed by them. Curiosity fits well with constructive self-governance, allowing us to roll with and learn from challenges, looking forward to seeing, and enjoying, how our own stories unfold during times of challenge and success. Curiosity allows us to both be in the moment and to take the long view, keeping different aspects of life in proportion with one another. When any one aspect of life becomes too consuming, other important things seem to shrink and get neglected. Curiosity helps us to restore and maintain balance, and not miss things we need.
7. You like your work, or pursue experiences outside of work which are satisfying, or both.
It’s easy to become fixated on work, trapped within a suffocating mindset. Expecting to get satisfaction from professional activities alone can be a trap, and can be pushed on us by social and cultural factors, especially if we come from high-performance backgrounds, or if being super-successful is a way to escape from adversity. While passion is wonderful, becoming stuck on not feeling passionate about income-generating activities is, for many, a guarantee of misery.
Keeping work in perspective can be a day-to-day practice, and can be tricky over a longer time span. Work may be a stepping stone, part of a larger plan to move both personal and professional pursuits into shape. Keeping things in perspective means that work can be seen as a means to an end, and that we recognize the importance of work to meet basic needs.