Have you lost that livin’ feeling? Or, let me put it another way: When was the last time you were so excited by a passion that people asked you, “What’s up with that grin?” Where were you when you were so riveted by a new experience that you forgot you had a single problem? When did you last feel the tingle of a “wow!” moment?
In my new book, Don’t Miss Your Life (and in my forthcoming series of columns for Experience Life), I focus on the value of such moments. I investigate why “that living feeling” has been drained out of too many lives, how we can get it back, and why the experience of it is more valuable than a truck full of Rolexes.
In the scramble of our career ambitions and obligations, it’s easy to forget that we are dealing with a finite commodity: time. We mortals have a limited engagement. So what do you want to experience while you still can? And how much time do you have to do it? In truth, none of us can be entirely sure.
Like all of us, Heather Burcham thought she had plenty of time. A beautiful woman with a bright future, this preschool teacher from Houston was diagnosed with cervical cancer at 26. She could have been bitter about her fate. But, after learning that her illness was terminal, she decided to spend her remaining days living to the fullest. She took up skydiving, jumping in tandem with an instructor, and put her waning strength to work as a cancer activist, lobbying the Texas legislation for a vaccine that could prevent young women from contracting the human papilloma virus that caused her illness.
Many of us have been cut off from the vitality, satisfaction and meaning that come from the nonprofessional side of life — the side of life Heather Burcham embraced after her diagnosis. The culprit is “performance identity,” or the mistaken belief that you are what you do. It measures your worth by work output and job status, rather than by your intrinsic worth as a person. Its purpose is to keep you caught up in busyness and external worth, and it sabotages any natural urges that result in random acts of fun or nonproductivity. The result is a growing epidemic of what I see as life-deficit disorder.
Buried under mountains of work, life logistics and household chores, too many of us are missing our lives, letting potentially delightful moments pass us by.
Research shows that life’s most gratifying experiences come from really living — not as the result of working longer at your job or getting that expensive new toy. When we assume that a scintillating life will emerge from work and external success, we wind up sorely disappointed.
Open Your Fun-Intake Valve
The latest happiness research clearly indicates that the secret to a rich, satisfying life isn’t found in outward symbols of success, but rather in the experiences that stir us to our core. That’s because pursuing our authentic interests and passions satisfies fundamental psychological needs in ways that external accomplishments can’t.
As long as you depend on performance for validation, you can’t really take in the best, more exhilarating parts of life — because the chip in your head is programmed only for output.
A mind in the performance “work mode” doesn’t fully participate in or enjoy the rewards of play or pleasure, because enjoyment comes from the realm of input — it’s about experience, not outcome.
The good news: You can start reclaiming your life — today. Groundbreaking research being done in positive and social psychology suggests that you should start developing these skills now. Studies show that participation in leisure activities is one of the most significant factors in determining the quality of our lives.
“The higher the frequency of participation in leisure activities,” says social psychologist Seppo Iso-Ahola, PhD, of the University of Maryland, “the higher the life satisfaction.”
In future installments of this series, we’ll be diving deeper into the research that explains why building skills and awareness in this area is so crucial. I’ll also be offering you some suggestions for upping your own fun aptitude.
It may seem strange to think about consciously developing your ability to enjoy life. But the truth is, the vast majority of us have either forgotten or never learned most of these skills. Too many of us literally don’t know how to have fun, so we end up filling our free time with passive entertainments that, ultimately, aren’t very satisfying.
Build Your Enjoyment Quotient
I call the aptitudes and attitudes required to create optimal leisure time “life intelligence.” Much like emotional and social intelligence, life intelligence is a collection of traits that improve your odds of creating and enjoying a successful life.
Raising your life-intelligence quotient requires harnessing skills that directly oppose the performance mind-set. They include:
1. Allowing experiences to unfold
2. Trusting your decisions and not needing the approval of the crowd
3. Seeking out the unfamiliar
4. Practicing playfulness
5. Surrendering control instead of micromanaging
6. Becoming a participant rather than a spectator
As you develop these skills, you’ll begin breaking free of the performance identity trap. You’ll become a more active, joyful participant in your own life. And that can’t happen too soon.
I had hoped to interview Heather Burcham for my book, but time didn’t allow that to happen. She died in 2007 at the age of 31. “How lucky you are,” she told a reporter for ABC News. “You get to enjoy each moment.” She left a powerful message for us all: Tomorrow’s too late. Get out and live now.
How to Make a “To-Live” List
You’ve probably mastered the art of keeping a to-do list in the productivity-focused side of your life. Consider keeping a “to-live” list, too. Having a set of fun things you’d like to do or experience (not just before you die, but soon!) is a great way to make sure the leisure side of your life gets equal attention. To build your list, consider the following questions:
- Are there any places in your neighborhood/city/state/overseas that you’ve always wanted to visit?
- What activities have you always wanted to try? Mountain biking? Olympic lifting? Jewelry making? Piano playing?
- What activities did you love to do as a child?
- Think about the people in your life. Is there anyone whose nonprofessional habits and hobbies make you say, “Hey, that looks fun!” What are they doing that interests you?
See if you can come up with five ideas that could go on your to-live agenda right now, from concerts to social activities to trips and experimental adventures. Then keep adding to your list over time.