My wife gave me the news. I was getting on an airplane after speaking to a group of educators about wellbeing in schools when she called to tell me that one of my clients had died. I knew this was coming — she had been sick for some time — but that knowledge did not make me any less sad about the reality of her passing. She was brave, funny, kind, and sincere — I will miss her.
The experience of death is a powerful motivator to reflect on how we live. After studying and teaching about wellbeing for the last thirty years, there are certain unavoidable themes that just keep coming up.
Work with what is. The universe is complex. The human nervous system is complex. Stuff shows up that is unwanted and unpleasant. This is just life. No amount of resistance or complaint keeps the ever-changing nature of existence from showing up. Difficult emotions and situations are simply a natural part of life. We can put a lot of energy into struggling against the way things are, pointing fingers at who is to blame, and wishing for it to be different, or we can bring peaceful awareness and acceptance to how things are and start there.
Focus on purpose and connection. Not only do pleasant feelings pass, the pursuit of them can take us further from the life we really want. The promise of pleasure and comfort is a great way to sell things, but it is not always the best guide for a good life. Anchoring ourselves in what matters most and working to make authentic connections with others is a much more enduring source of wellbeing.
Do the next right thing. There is so much authentic confidence that comes from keeping meaningful commitments to ourselves and others — especially when we don’t feel like it. Going for a run, sending a thank you note, getting a good nights sleep, returning the email, eating food that is good for us, taking responsibility for a mistake — these are not glamorous, but doing them reminds us that we are capable of taking meaningful action even when we would rather do something else.
Practice what you seek. Most of us grow up with the idea that we will feel the things we want to feel if we are surrounded by the right circumstances. So, we work hard to get people to like us and treat us well. We push for success and we try to get the world to be the way we want it to be. There is nothing wrong with achievement and accomplishment, but when we think that it will necessarily lead to the internal experience we seek, we can be tragically disappointed. In addition, trying to control the universe is a lot of work that can lead to overwhelm, exhaustion, and resentment. Rather than wait until external circumstances trigger the feelings we want, we can take time everyday to intentionally cultivate the love, gratitude, and joy that we seek.
Be of service. We all struggle. We all have an internal experience that no one else can see. In light of this, being kind to ourselves and others is the only thing that makes sense. Being hard on each other and ourselves does not make us more equipped to deal with the challenges of being human. Kindness is not always easy and it certainly is not a sign of weakness — being kind when you are irritated, offended, frustrated, angry, or afraid takes a lot self-control and courage. Even tiny acts of kindness can change the course of someone’s day — or even their life. Sometimes life is really hard, and it will be over all too soon — we are capable of supporting each other on this miraculous and challenging journey. Why wouldn’t we?