When Dante Alighieri wrote his books, he was 35 years old. The first section, the Inferno begins with the words “Midway upon the journey of our life”. Around 700 years later, it is not that rare to live 100 years, so midway is equivalent to 50 years old. This is a good point to look in both directions: the past and the future.
In his work, Dante provides us with valuable insights on all the people he knew and the way people used to think in his time. He travels into the depth of hell and then rises into the heavens in his dream. This is a very interesting form of organizing your thoughts, and it was a sort of mental palace 700 years ago.
I do not think that today theology should be used by secular writers, but we need to reassess our lives just like our ancestors.
Self-assessment of well-being
The most important question to ask will probably not be reflected in any autobiography: how happy we are with our wellbeing? Here are some further questions for a rating in the 1-10 scale:
- overall satisfaction with your life
- a sense of mastery over the environment
- degree of emotional health
- quality of your relationship with others
- sense of autonomy
- levels of self-acceptance
- satisfaction with your workplace functioning
- satisfaction with your health and fitness
- level of your sense of purpose in life
- level of personal growth
Any domain with a score of less than 5 needs attention. If overall satisfaction is below 60, possibly you may benefit from counseling.
By the way, the scores are the lowest around the age of 50 and tend to be higher both before and after. I guess we still have some expectations, but we understand that we will never be there. For example, I need to spend more attention on the health and fitness area.
I fill a similar questionnaire every year. Each time I use a different formulation to unlock further insights. When I was 25, I wanted to have more focus on sports and music. I think I caught up in the area of music, but somewhere in the early 40s forgot to do sports.
Bad days and self-assessment
Homeostasis ensures that we return to the same average level of well-being after a huge good or bad event. There are some exceptions, like depression often caused by chronic pains and incarceration, but winning a lottery is not one of them.
All of us have good days and bad days. On a bad day, it is possible to change the wellbeing:
- Go take a walk or do some grounding exercises. This improves the perspective, especially when tired and frustrated.
- Do something for someone else. This adds a sense of purpose. We love to be needed.
- Get to the root cause. Maybe this is something environmental and treatable, like a bad smell or heat.
- Reframe. If something bad happened, it can often be reframed into an opportunity. At least worth giving it a try.
- Establish small wins. Do something small but important to feel a small sense of victory. I mark such tasks on my to-do list just for such days.
- Step out of your comfort zone. If there is no sense of personal growth or autonomy, you might need a new challenge.
Bad days should not alter the self-assessment. If they do, your vision of life might be impulsive and whimsical.
Not everyone can effectively address experiences in writing. Even great authors often fail in this particular task. It is much easier to address places and people, hoping that the reader can imagine the experience all by himself. With some help from TED lectures, we are all after experiences to feel happier. I do not know how well we can define the nature of positive experiences.
Preparation + Expectation + Action + Realization = Creation of your life experiences.
We imagine the next vacation, plan it, anticipate the experiences, and read about it. Then we prepare: buy tickets, pack things, make arrangements for the apartment. When the time comes, we act and enjoy the experience. Then we return to the experience in our conversations and relive it in our heads. And start planning the next experience.
By the way, experiences used to be a bad thing just a century ago. Harry S Truman said “The reward of suffering is experience” and George Bernard Shaw said “We learn from experience that men never learn anything from experience”.
The positive thinking psychology transformed experiences into something good. Now everything we experience should be reframed into wonderful and magical, even if a tropical paradise was hot, sweaty, and full of annoying mosquitos.
We are supposed to ask ourselves: How our current experience can be any better? What do I want to make happen? Well, we may feel overall lousy and nothing can make it better, simply because it is normal to have a bad day!
Another strange idea of positive psychology is turning resolutions into reality. As if we really know what we need. What if we want something that will make things worse? Should we feel guilty about it? Should we try to turn bad resolutions into reality?
Some articles actually provide a framework to make resolutions workable. We start by self-compassion. If we do not love ourselves, we might generate a resolution that brings suffering. Like, “I want to lose weight”. Very few people lose weight and keep it low without deep physical and psychological changes. This is not dictated by willpower. Any willpower is limited and should be treated sparingly. If you invest all of your willpower into the diet, something else will break, like your budget.
Separate shoulds from wants. We are supposed to do certain things, but if we do not really want them, they will not make us happier. We may want some things, but if they are not good for us, we will feel guilt and embarrassment. The things that are realized successfully, usually combine shoulds and wants.
I did not become the man I am because of some resolution. To be honest, I followed some opportunities, avoided some threats, and leveraged my strengths. This path could lead me to very different places, and I am who I am due to a certain combination of good and bad luck. If there was no Chernobyl, the Soviet Union might still be a superpower, and I could as well live there. Control is a dangerous illusion.
Between huge global events, like wars and pandemics, we can plan our lives. I really love these questions as a tool to reflect on my life:
- When were you able to use your talents, skills, and gifts? What were you doing? How did you feel?
- How did you grow? Did anything get in the way of your growth?
- When do you feel you sold out, where you did something to avoid confrontation, or to feel comfortable even though you now know the convenience was not in your best interest?
- What did you put off that you wished you had spent more time on?
- What impact are you making? Is this enough for you?
- What do you believe created your present circumstances? Are your assumptions limiting how you view your life?
- What did you enjoy doing in the past but now, the energy is disappearing?
- What are you clinging to that defines you but it is now time to let go of?
- What do you feel you should have done by this time in your life? What is stopping you now?
- If talent is the joyful expression of your unique abilities, how are you using your talents to benefit you, your community, or the world?
- What inside of you wants to be heard or set free? If you listened to this longing, what would you know you have to do?
- What did you promise yourself you would do but you can now release?
On new year’s eve and in the middle of summer I ask these or similar questions, trying to dream about the past and the possible futures. I think I have done this too long, and this year I want to think about my past more systematically.
There is no demonstration or call for action in this article. I do not think that everyone needs to write an autobiography. The next time you will want to think about your life, you are welcome to use some of the questions I presented.