Research has consistently showed that older folks – say, in mid-life and beyond – are generally more happy with themselves and their lives than younger folks – teens, 20’s, 30’s. One reason is that the lives of these folks are generally more settled and stable – they have jumped all those early-adult challenges and now have established the career, whatever it may be, have more income, partners, etc.
But the other reason is that they have accumulated a lot of knowledge and wisdom by simply experiencing their lives. Success in life is a process of elimination. You make mistakes – be it in changing the oil in your car, handling a job interview, hanging wallpaper, or dating someone outside your typical comfort zone – and walk away with one more lesson learned. Hopefully, you build on these and as you move along in your life, your life moves along more easily with you.
Or to put it another way, your problems teach what you need to learn.
This is an exercise to help you uncover some of your life lessons so far, to unravel the moral of the story of key events. Take your time in doing this, do it all in one sitting.
Here are the instructions:
1. On top of a sheet of paper write down: What have been the emotionally important events in my life?
2. Review your life
You can do this by mentally moving through your life chronologically, early childhood through present, and see what stands out, or repeatedly ask the question and see what first comes to your mind each time.
Try to sidestep the obvious ones like your wedding or birth of a child unless some strong detail stands out. What you are looking for are situations, events, that when you think of them now give you an emotional punch – breakup with boyfriend in high school or not making the football team; completing your first running race; unexpectedly getting fired from a job; the death of your grandma…or your dog; an out-of-the-blue complement from an intimidating job supervisor. You may be surprised at what comes up – small instances, a quick comment – that have for some reason remained.
Write down the event in a few words to identify it. Shoot for no more than 10 items. If more come to mind, pare them down and keep only the 10 most emotionally important ones.
3. Now look at each one.
The question to ask yourself is: What did this event/situation teach me?
You’re going to ask this question twice.
On the first pass, think in terms of what you may have learned about others or life: When thinking about your last breakup, for example, that guys can’ be trusted, or when thinking about that first running race, that you can succeed if you work hard for something. Write down your thoughts.
Now ask the question again and try and drill down: What did you learn about you? Look for the details, the nuances – that when you meet someone new you need to be more honest and open sooner, that you need to ask for support when you feel discouraged and want to quit, that you need to stop managing your anxiety through control. You’ll know when you uncover the true lesson because it give you an emotional jolt or sting, or an Aha-type of reaction. Write it down.
4. Look for themes.
Look through your list of lessons. Is there a theme that seems to connect them – about being less afraid, taking risks, or being less impulsive and taking less risks; listening to your heart and emotions, or not listening to your emotions and making better use of your rational mind? See what you see; whatever you see is true for you. This is your life trying to teach you, perhaps, what you most need to learn, the moral of the story of your life so far.
5. Incorporate the lessons into your everyday life.
Think about the lessons that you feel you have done a good job incorporating already in your life. Write these down and pat yourself on the back.
Now think about lessons that you have not done such a good job incorporating. Write these down.
Now for each one on this second list, think about and write down ways you can begin to apply these lessons to your life right now – to your work, your relationships, to the way you treat or manage yourself.
Be specific, concrete – that you’re going to invite a work colleague out for lunch so you can challenge yourself to be less isolated, or that you’re going to start looking for a new job because you need to be more honest with yourself about how bored you are, or you’re going to let your partner know how much it bothers you that he leaves his dirty dishes in on the kitchen counter because you are going to stop being a martyr in relationships.
6. Now do it... and repeat.