Carole Carson: Living outside the comfort zone
What constitutes the good life?
According to a National Institutes of Health study, psychologists have historically considered the good life to be hedonic or eudaimonic.
The hedonic life involves enjoyment — good food, loving family ties, caring friends, and comfortable financial circumstances. In other words, the hedonic version focuses on having enjoyable experiences and avoiding unpleasant ones.
Eudaimonic wellbeing, however, is characterized by happiness derived from meaning and purpose. Albert Schweitzer described this philosophy well: “The purpose of human life is to serve and to show compassion and the will to help others.”
Careers dedicated to teaching or ministry are examples of achieving happiness by helping others. Working at a meaningful job or parenting children who become solid community members are other examples.
Most of us are neither unbridled libertines nor holy saints. Instead, we intermingle both kinds of happiness without labeling them, intuitively knowing they are not incompatible. Indeed, we benefit from having both in our lives.
Today, however, psychologists have found a third source of happiness — one based on psychological richness. This kind of happiness is characterized by “a variety of interesting and perspective-changing experiences.”
In my life, perspective-altering experiences have been ones that dragged me kicking and screaming out of my comfort zone. They didn’t feel enriching, but impoverishing, since much was lost. This was certainly the case when my husband of 30 years died in April, and I moved to France afterward.
I can testify that happiness resulting from psychological richness is not comfortable — at least at first. My current discomfort has three causes:
1. An inability to make results happen: With limited French-language skills and a few lingering medical problems, I can’t make things happen by an act of will. This is contrary to how I’ve always lived. I’ve always been self-reliant and fiercely independent. Relying on others to meet my needs places me far outside my comfort zone.
2. Lack of skills: How do I start the washing machine or the dishwasher? How do I use my landline phone? How do I weigh, mark, and buy produce at the grocery store? What bus do I take to go shopping? Although I am studying French and will soon have a tutor, my language skills are insufficient. Being unable to understand what others are saying is isolating.
3. Not knowing what the future holds: I’ve always been a structured person who started my day with a list of to-dos and measured my success by what I crossed off. I still make a list, but on any given day, the future unfolds independently of the list. Events are not under my control.
Part of this is cultural. Here in the south of France, tomorrow is just as good as — or even better than — today for getting things done. Living this way, however, requires that I trust that my needs will be met, even though I don’t have the slightest idea how this might happen.
At some intuitive level, though, I am confident that the hedonic, self-centered happiness, and the eudaimonic, altruistic happiness, can be combined with the third kind of happiness — a psychologically rich life.
I’ve already noticed how much I’ve gained from being willing to be uncomfortable. I’ve mastered the basics of housekeeping, can shop alone, know how to use my cell phone and landline phone (although since messages are in French, I don’t understand them), and adjusted to a very different lifestyle, including rising and eating later in the day.
I’ve learned patience (never my strong suit) and have been delightfully surprised by how the universe seems to provide for my needs without my heavy hand directing events. I’ve also come to realize that my practice of structuring my day with a list of tasks severely limits spontaneity and delightful surprises from fortuitous events.
The NIH study found that a significant number of people report “they would choose a psychologically rich life at the expense of a happy or meaningful life.” The researchers further report that “approximately a third say that undoing their life’s biggest regret would have made their lives psychologically richer.”
When I wake up each day, I still find it hard to believe that I live in France, that my husband is gone, that my day will be filled with the unexpected and unplanned, and that I’ll sometimes be both comfortable and uncomfortable.
Right now, John Wayne’s quote is especially useful to me: “True courage is when you are scared to death and still saddle up and ride in!” Without certainty, I’ll proceed with the faith that I’ll eventually take delight in the ride and changing scenery.
Carole Carson, Montpellier, France, is an author, former AARP website contributor, and leader of the 1994 Nevada County Meltdown. Contact her at email@example.com
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