A meaningful existence

A friend of mine once asked me if I don’t get tired of people always coming up to me at parties to tell me their opting out story. And the honest truth is no, I never get tired of it. I wish more people would tell me their stories.

It’s true; people often come up to me to talk about opting out. The other day, a woman in my kids’ school asked me if I was the one with the thesis (I had recently been interviewed for our local newspaper), and told me that she is also one of those women. This happens to me quite a lot.

I think it’s wonderful that people recognize themselves in my research, and that it touches them somehow. I feel honored that many want to share their experiences with me. I often hear that I have put words on feelings they haven’t been able to verbalize or analyze themselves. I take this as a great compliment and a sign that my research is close to reality and has managed to capture shared experiences. Because that is what they are, shared experiences. We experience similar struggles in our lives when, for example, trying to combine work with family, or simply trying to manage in an ever more hectic working environment, even though we seldom talk about it. Unfortunately it has been a bit of a taboo to admit that maybe we aren’t doing great when we’re trying to have it all. Many people seem almost surprised that others seem to feel the same way, that they aren’t unique in their frustration, their fatigue, and their turmoil.

Another thing people often want to talk about is what these women opted in to after having opted out. Many women I meet dream of opting out, but don’t know how to go about it, nor do they know what they could do instead. And that is the thing, it is hard to imagine anything other than what we know – it is hard to imagine alternative ways of living and working, which is what people who long to opt out are looking for. Their current lifestyle might not feel meaningful, maybe the stress they experience has a negative effect on their wellbeing, or maybe they are just simply overwhelmed. At the same time there is all this hype and advice on how to be happy, so we expect more of life that just struggling to get by. And rightfully so; this is our only life, we might as well make the most of it.

But unfortunately there is no recipe for opting out and in to new meaningful and manageable lifestyles. The women I have talked to opted in to everything from housewife to entrepreneur. Some have taken top positions in organizations – but on different terms – some have gone back to school and then embarked on a new career. Different people obviously want very different things in their lives and some people want to opt in to types of work that others want to opt out of. The bottom line is that people who opt out, are doing so from a certain way of living and working that is expected of them but that just isn’t working for them in order to adopt a way of life that not only works for them, but that allows them to thrive.

We are all susceptible to other’s expectations and to what other people think we want, or should want. We don’t always realize that we may be living other people’s dreams and not our own. People who opt out typically spend a lot of time soul searching before they actually take the step, and when they finally figure out what it is they are going to opt in to instead, they are pretty clear on who they are, what is important, and what they are and aren’t willing to give up.

Unfortunately there is no magic recipe, but I did read something that I think really hit the nail on its head. Among all the advice on how to find happiness circulating on the Internet, I saw one post that really resonated with me. According to Professor Catherine Sanderson one way to be happy is simply to “figure out what you do well and find ways to do it.” When you do something well you generally feel good about what you do, which in turn feels meaningful. And a meaningful existence really helps when dealing with whatever it is life hands you.

(Read more about Professor Sanderson’s thoughts on happiness here.)

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4 thoughts on “A meaningful existence

  1. Very well condensed, indeed. How to think about life stages when you have a hunch about what you want to do, but you are not (yet) good at it. How does learning relate to happiness?

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    • I think we should talk about meaningfulness and fulfillment rather than focus so much on happiness. As I understand it was at the end of the 90’s that positive psychology was instrumental in making happiness a widespread obsession, at least in the West. I think happiness is actually a result of meaning and fulfillment; if all we strive for is happiness, I don’t think we’re ever going to find it and we’re never going to be content. But to answer your question, at least for me personally, learning feels very meaningful and no one is born an expert. Knowledge needs to be acquired, and as you once wisely said in a previous comment, if you do what you always did, you get what you always got. If you’re looking to opt in to something new but aren’t sure what it is, you’re never going to figure it out unless you explore different things. So if you have a hunch that something might feel meaningful and fulfilling, maybe it’s worth a shot. And who knows, it may even make you feel happy..!

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  2. Pingback: The search for happiness | the opting out blog

  3. Pingback: I’m back! | the opting out blog

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