This is one of those "thinking-out-loud" posts. I thought I'd share some of the things that are circling in my mind and hopefully figure out a few things in the process.
I have been blogging now since 2006 about what was originally a quest to lose 20 pounds. Now it's closer to 30, and I wonder why something that seems so simple on the surface could have become so difficult. As Valerie Frankel said in Thin is the New Happy, continually losing and regaining the same 20 pounds is "not so much Sisyphean as a**holian." It seems just plain ridiculous.
I remember that when I had lost the weight, I felt sort of disoriented. Without the familiar problem, where should I focus my energy? I had the same feeling when I finished my dissertation, and now, when I have the job that I got that dissertation in the hopes of getting -- that reaching the goal doesn't feel as meaningful as its pursuit. I look around and wonder, "what next?" It's easy to think that the answer is to set another, bigger, more audacious goal. But the fact that I've accomplished some very big goals and still felt empty suggests that accomplishments are probably not the road to happiness.
Peter Walsh's many books have all been about people who try to fill that empty feeling with possessions, but even when their homes are so overstuffed that they don't have room to live, they keep pursuing more.
The Willpower Instinct gives a clue on why we get hung up on pursuing the same things over and over, even when it doesn't exactly make us happy. It has to do with our brain chemistry. Dopamine is a brain chemical associated both with motivation and with addiction. It stimulates the expectation of reward, but is not associated with happiness itself. It can motivate us to seek, but dopamine is an excitement junkie. It doesn't stick around for the "happily ever after" part. It tends to send us in the direction of primitive needs: Food, sex, excitement, immediate gratification, status. It doesn't steer us to things that actually feel good -- meaningful contact with friends, creative activities, time out in nature.
Lately I have been feeling the need for something even bigger than happiness: Purpose and meaning. I am stuck on the fundamental question: What does it all mean? Why am I here? What will I, or can I, leave behind when I'm gone? What purpose is my life supposed to serve?
My French teacher was talking (in French) disapprovingly about a women she read about in the news who went parachuting when she was 84. Roughly translated, my teacher's question was, "Why should she do that? She could still live even another ten years." My question, which I could not articulate in French, was why would another 10 years be better than doing something she apparently really wanted to do right now?
I'm not saying I'm no longer interested in short-term goals. I am. I still want to lose the weight just so that my life will be simpler -- I won't have to spend time trying to find clothes that will make me look acceptable with the extra roll around my middle. The revelation of
The Willpower Instinct for me was that the fact that a goal is not easy to accomplish is not necessarily a sign that it's not worth pursuing. I want to write a book, not for fame and fortune, but just for the satisfaction of doing something that I have wanted to do for my whole life. Publishing it is beside the point. I still want to find a way to make my work feel more meaningful.
But in the process, I do hope to find the bigger why. Any insights would be most welcome!