Monday, September 5, 2016

A Both/And World

Sometimes the world feels very either/or. You're either happy or unhappy. You're successful or not. With this either/or thinking comes the idea that there's a certain path to happiness; you find it or you don't. If you achieve a certain life (certain type of job or income level, find a partner, have kids, own a home, have a dog named buster, etc.) then you will be happy. Is that really true? If our life doesn't go the way we planned or the way others think it should, does that mean we've failed? I think that an either/or perspective might not actually put us on the path to happiness and that another option, called Both-And thinking, might be a better fit for most people. Both-And thinking focuses on dialectical (flexible with multiple possibilities) rather than absolute (either/or) thinking. Which means:
  •  Two conflicting feelings can be present at the same time: You've probably experienced having two conflicting emotions at once at some point in life. For example, you can be happy your teenager got into Harvard while also being sad that they'll be moving away or you're angry that your department at work is being shut down while also feeling relieved you don't have to work in that environment anymore. In these examples, both feelings are valid for what you're experiencing. It also makes sense that you're feeling them at the same time even though we don't always think two opposing feelings can exist at the same time. Having conflicting feelings is a normal part of life.
  • One truth doesn't guarantee a certain outcome: If one thing is true it doesn't mean that a specific outcome will occur. For example, you didn't achieve some of the dreams you had as a young person yet have lived a full life. It may be true that you had dreams that didn't come true but that doesn't guarantee your life will feel worthless. Sometimes what we expect our lives to be can change but that doesn't always lead to us being disappointed. I see parent's struggling with expectations that if they parent a certain way their children will act or grow up a certain way. For example, you teach your kids that honesty is an important value but your son is caught cheating in high school. When your child is young you spend a lot of family time together and feel very close yet when she grows up, moves across the country, and never calls home. There's an unspoken idea that if you're a good parent then your children will turn out to be a good person, have your moral traits, and will take care of you in your old age yet that is not always the case. There will always be outside variables we can't plan for. We can't control every aspect of life or even how we're going to react to events.
With Both-And thinking life has multiple possibilities with various outcomes. It also factors in that life doesn't always go the way we expect. You may have the goal of getting a college degree in 4 years but then your scholarship fund dries up, a parent has major health issues, or you start experiencing a mental illness and get your degree in 6 instead of 4 years. Does that mean you've failed because it may take you longer to get that degree? If your answer is yes, is that yes going to make you a happier, healthier person or drag you down?

We're more complex than either/or thinking; we can have a cascade of feelings all at once, we can think we want one thing yet find we want something else entirely, we can think our life is going to unfold in one way and find happiness in the way it actually happens. You can be proud that you raised your kids well even if they make decisions you disagree with as adults. You may feel sad that you ended a long term relationship while also feeling confident it was the right decision. You may think you're going to go to graduate school to get your Doctorate but find that you're happy with the work you can do with your Masters degree. When we expand our expectations we aren't expecting there to be one road to happiness. Instead we see that there are multiple roads that lead to a wonderful life, some of which may surprise us.
Thoughts by Alissa Kaasa