Last week I said the reason we stall in life is because we lose meaning. Of course meaning, lift, purpose (whatever you want to call it) is the reason we do anything. The meaning we give our life is the reason we get out of bed in the morning. Otherwise, why bother?
In its deepest sense this means depression. Depression is a loss of lift. Most people think of depression as a kind of sadness but that’s not correct. While sadness is often associated with depression they are not the same thing.
Sadness is a feeling. Depression is a more like a lack of feeling. It feels like a heavy fog blankets everything. All you want to do is let that fog envelope you. It’s a form of retreat from life. A deep withdrawal. A shrivelling of the self.
It’s a loss of hope, either in yourself or the world at large. As it happens this is the primary reason we give life meaning. Meaning gives us hope. When we fail to see the meaning in something we lose hope. This causes us to give up.
This is happening to us collectively on a staggering scale in the modern world. A scale that is only increasing. To quote some rather alarming statistics:
- In the United States, depression and anxiety are on an eighty-year upswing among young people and a twenty-year upswing among the adult population.
- Not only are people experiencing depression in greater numbers, but they’re experiencing it at earlier ages, with each generation.
- Across the U.S. population, feelings of loneliness and social isolation are up. Nearly half of all Americans now report feeling isolated, left out, or alone in their lives.
- Social trust is also not only down across the developed world but plummeting, meaning fewer people than ever trust their government, the media, or one another.
- In the 1980s, when researchers asked survey participants how many people they had discussed important personal matters with over the previous six months, the most common answer was “three.” By 2006, the most common answer was “zero.”
Clearly then, something is up. It certainly ain’t the sky!
If we take the premise that the underlying reason we stall stems from a loss of meaning, and if we also take the premise that the main reason we lose meaning stems from an inability to let go, that begs a number of questions.
Why have we lost meaning on such a colossal scale, especially in the modern developed world? What it is we’re unable to let go of? What can we do to save ourselves before it’s too late?
Undeniably these are complex and difficult questions to answer, but since I’m writing a book, I best have a crack. Let’s start with the obvious before taking a rapid nose dive off a cliff!
On the surface it seems the reason we stall is a matter wanting something we can’t have. It’s like being grounded as a pilot. The desire to fly leaves us wishing for a different reality.
Of course, we want to be out and about, exploring the world, playing with our mates. We want to be getting rich, ripped, promoted and recognised for being the hero (or heroine) we all imagine we could and should be.
We all want to have the perfect glistening bodies, deeply meaningful careers, and raise perfect children who would never fart in public. We want a bigger house, a faster car, a fatter paycheque.
We want adulation from millions of ardent fans. We want to conquer the world and leave a legacy so our name may live on for all eternity.
That’s we want, if we’re brutally honest.
The question is why? Why do feel we must have everything, do everything and please everyone? Why is what we have never enough?
Performance coach and author Brad Stulberg calls this condition heroic individualism. “An ongoing game of one-upmanship against both yourself and others, paired with the limiting belief that measurable achievement is the only arbiter of success.”
As he explains, “men describe it as a cumbersome need to be bulletproof, invincible.” Whereas “women report feeling like they must be everything always, continually falling short of impossible expectations.”
The big issue with heroic individualism is the underlying belief.
We aren’t driven by a deep internal value system – or moral compass – but a deep seated fear that who we are and what we have isn’t enough. A fear that we are way off course, miles away from the destination we should be, and heading in wrong direction still.
So we feel we must keep striving, pushing, whipping ourselves in a desperate attempt to make up for our lack of being, to get our lives back on course – to climb to the highest possible cruising level for our lives to hold any meaning.
It’s the equivalent of pulling full back struck and applying maximum thrust 24/7. You’ll certainly see some short term results. But eventually, rather quickly, you’ll burn out and stall. It’s not sustainable over the long haul.
This is worth stressing: Whether you feel need to do everything or struggle to do anything, in either case you are driven by a sense of hopelessness.
Ultimately, if we don’t learn to accept ourselves for who and where we are, we will always feel out of control. This is important because a sense of control is central to maintaining hope. If we don’t feel we have any control, eventually, we lose hope.
When this happens we get a visit from the existential worm at the core. (I’ll talk more about Mr wormy head next week.)
Unfortunately a lack of belief isn’t the only issue when it comes to stalling. In fact, there are a number of psychological flaws that fuck us up on a regular basis. In the modern age, I would argue, understanding those flaws is more important than ever before.
One of those flaws is something behavioural scientists like to call hedonic adaptation or set point happiness. Something I like to refer to as the pursuit of unhappiness.
Harvard psychologist Tal Ben-Shahr, who coined the term “arrival fallacy”, describes it as living under the false illusion that once we make it (whatever that means) we will find the kind of lasting inner peace and contentment we desperately crave. Then, only then, we will live happily ever after.
But even when we do arrive, even when our wildest dreams are realised, that happiness is short lived. Despite sacrificing everything to achieve our dreams, it’s a mere “blip” on the radar of life. We immediately start thinking about the next best thing. How that next promotion, fatter paycheque, or faster car will give us everything we need.
This is because we all have a set-point of happiness. Some of us have a higher set point (bastards) while others have a lower set point (poor bastards), but the vast majority of us (regardless of sex, gender, age, class etc) lie somewhere in the middle.
And somewhere in the middle looks like this: “Life is okayish, I guess. Not bad, but not great either. Certainly room for improvement!”
Of course, this set point is continually reset based on our life circumstances. So, if we win the lottery for example, what happens? We’re happy for a while, because, well, we just won the fucking lottery! But, eventually, much quicker than we would like, we get used to it.
We get used to our new lavish lifestyle – we get used to the big mansion, the 5 sports cars, the jet-setting. The existential worm at the core catches up with us. (There he is again.) We start to feel that something is off. That money really isn’t everything. (Shocker!) That we didn’t want the world after all.
The good news is that hedonic adaptation works in reverse.
If you have a divorce, for example, or end up in accident that leaves you paralysed – studies have shown that although your life on paper becomes worse, you readjust. Things feels awful for a while, but then get use to this new normal. You accept it – sort of – and move back to your default level of slight dissatisfaction.
The problem is (here’s where I open my bay doors and drop a bombshell on you) we don’t see this.
The same way we think gaining that next promotion or winning the lottery will solve all our problems, we think that losing what we already have will be an unmitigated disaster that will end in the collapse of humanity itself (I may be exaggerating).
This is because we suffer from something known in psychology as loss aversion (which goes hand in hand with something else known as a negativity bias). Loss aversion states that, on average, the pain of losing something is three to four times greater than the happiness of having it.
Lettings go hurts – a lot!
This brings us to the next critical life lesson: We are terrible at predicting what will make us happy.
Mother Nature – that cruel mistress – wired us this way. She’s got us convinced that we need to keep climbing to the flight level above us, even though, in reality, it won’t make us any happier. On top of which she convinced us that letting go and descending to a lower altitude would be a massive mistake, even if the turbulence at our current one is unbearable.
The reason for this is simple: survival.
To think back a few thousand years – for the vast majority of our evolution – we really didn’t have much stuff. The stuff we did have was invariably necessary for our survival. So we clung to those things while going after whatever scraps we get our scrawny little mits on. We kept hunting and gathering because we needed to! We needed to save up for the inevitable rainy day. Of which there were many.
The grass is always greener for a good reason. Once upon a time, the grass was always greener.
To come back to issue of meaning. When our survival is at stake that’s meaning enough. But past a certain point, the issue isn’t about our survival but the survival of our things. We cling to our things – our jobs, our relationships, our privileged lifestyle, our beliefs – because those things define who we are. They’re what give our lives meaning.
And right now, in the modern developed world at least, it seems we have everything to lose and very little to gain. This scares us, quite literally, to death.
(I’ll pick this up next week.)
This is part two of a series of posts on the subject of stalling in life.
Part 1: Stalling: The Aerodynamics of Life
Part 3: Stalling: Why We Lose Lift (2)
You can find more of AP2’s writing here at: https://clear-air-turbulence.com
You can also find him on Medium at: https://anxiouspilot2.medium.com
You can also email him directly at: email@example.com
28 thoughts on “Stalling: Why We Lose Lift”
Life does have a meaning, or is it the individual who attaches meaning to life?
And the bubble bursts in the end when after a lifetime of struggle you can’t explain what is life.
I plan to talk about this in future posts. This is what we ultimately have to learn to let go of. The need for life to mean something. Instead see it as a personal choice that we get to make instead of trying to find meaning in a universe that is beyond comprehension. Otherwise the bundle bursts as you so eloquently put it. Thank you for sharing your thoughts 🙏
Thank you for sharing your abundant insights. It’s so true that the ego never–ever–“arrives” at some apparently fixed destination called happiness; yet our conditioning screams at us (how fortunate for those who are trying to sell us happiness for a price) to buy more, achieve more, and fly higher for more. It is only when the false “i” that is never appeased is jettisoned, that we realize–hmm, dang, he/she that I identified as myself was the root of the problem..
Thank you Art. We’ve already arrived. Most of us – myself included most of the time – fail to realise it. “The miracle is not to walk on water. The miracle is to walk on the green earth, dwelling deeply in the present moment and feeling truly alive.” – Thich Nhat Hanh. Thanks again Art. 🙏
So much to chew on here, AP2! I love that you’re bringing Tal-Ben Shahar forward…his Harvard happiness course and contributions about ‘never enough’ and relying on external rewards rather than intrinsic? Good stuff…and I love how you weave concepts together…especially loss aversion and how that oddly propels us forward. Maybe in a FOMO kind of way…not because we NEED whatever fill-in-the-blank seems essential in the short term but because of the anticipatory regret if we aren’t in pursuit. Many thanks for giving my brain much to mull this morning! 😉
Thank you Victoria. Sometimes it’s difficult to see what’s really driving our actions beneath it all. Having a clear value system is important. So we can recognise where we need to come back to whenever we find ourselves off course. 🙏
“The grass is greenest where you water it” is an expression I heard a few years ago and it impacted me deeply, for it showed that we develop our own happiness, define our own happiness, and also choose or reject what makes us happy. (This became the basis for my second book, where I explored my journey to developing happiness and showing a pathway for others to follow.)
When we subscribe to the old version of grass being greener on the other side, we give away our power, for we keep looking outside of ourselves, imagining a better life, when we could just buckle down and do the work to create it.
Living in a generationally materialistic society has taught us for decade upon decade to seek our happiness in things (thank you marketing companies), and this has accelerated the feelings of anxiety and depression with many people, for we have become indoctrinated to compare ourselves and our potential for happiness to other people, and with social media influencers creating even more smoke and mirrors, it’s very difficlt for many to separate themselves from this frenzy.
We also live in a time where talking about our feelings is now acceptable, and speaking about mental health issues has made more people aware they may be struggling with depression and that they’re not “just doing it for attention”.
Oh that’s a great one. The grass is greenest where you water it. This is a big problem is, we’re all trying to water the overhanging branches – the leaves at the top of the tree. But that’s not how a tree grows. You have to feed the roots. Thank you for your thoughtful comment Tamara 🙏
Lol, I like the imagery you bring up! Yes, we need to focus on the root of the matter and not get sidetracked! So many distractions!
Depression is a true illness. It is sad that it is still being shunned aside. Mental illness is hard. Genetics plays a role in our illness but the society too has changed in a way we are fast tracked to the illness even if we don’t develop. Hope this improves.
I fear it may get worse before it gets better. The rate of change is only increasing. Our inability to let go is causing untold suffering. Thank you for adding your thoughts 🙏
Appreciate your thoughts.
One of the primary reasons why many of these problems are on such a strong upswing is because such a small group has gotten control of EVERYTHING. This includes the government, education, business, media, etc. That small group is telling the masses how irrelevant they really are and how little they actually contribute. Since the masses are hearing tis from birth, they come to believe it to the deepest levels of their being and those social ills are setting in. At some point, we will see the full impact that this will create, destroying our society (of making some opening for some invader) since the creep will be working into those powerful families that are (falsely) believing themselves immune to the social problems.
To hurt others is to ultimately hurt yourself. So true. When will we learn that we all live under the same roof. Thank you for sharing your thoughts 🙏
I really like this post and topic. Meaning needs nourishing and in our daily lives we live like we are skimming the water rather than drinking it in… getting through life rather than living it.
I think we are famished from lack of wholesomeness. We dash, scroll, constantly feel like we need to be somewhere else ,watching some other programme, checking out some other app… all because we are seeking.
In my humble opinion (and I know not everyone will agree with this) but it is my opinion, faith is the answer to so much of this . .. it can ground us in humility , give us a moral compass, help us feel more assured in our sense of self, value, being loved, nourish and uplift our weariness, allow us to understand that we are not always the best judge or actioner when it comes to what we need… that is if it is practiced from the heart, not just tick box religion… but real meaningful faith, where we pause and learn and reflect and aim to find our joy in using our gifts to help others.
As religious faith in the modern world has declined there has developed a sense of moral bankruptcy, unease, dissatisfaction, anxiety, depression,like we live without true hope and reverence to this life. And deep inside we are seeking the opposite feelings found only through love, family, friends and faith… the real energy connections we need to thrive
Just my opinion.
I like your opinion very much. I’m very glad you shared it. Faith may well be required to deal with our unconscious fear of death. It provides psychological security – there is no doubt about this.
“real meaningful faith, where we pause and learn and reflect and aim to find our joy in using our gifts to help others.” – I love this.
Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts Pauline 🙏
Wow, such rich post (no pun intended, in terms of the pursuit of wealth).
I was intrigued on many levels, but this part jumped out at me: “It’s the equivalent of pulling full back struck and applying maximum thrust 24/7. You’ll certainly see some short term results. But eventually, rather quickly, you’ll burn out and stall. It’s not sustainable over the long haul.”
At this point in life, my issue isn’t so much looking for the next “thing” as it is trying to BE all things to those around me. Overextending myself, in other words. While that wasn’t really your point, the way you phrased this really resonated. Thank you, AP2!
It was my point on another level I think. We’ve been sold a dummy. Brought up to believe that we can have it all. But it’s not true. Trying to have it all and be a hero to everyone is breaking us. We need to make some tough choices and zero in on the things and people that mean the most to us. Ruthlessly cut out the rest/block out the noise. I’m pleased the post resonated. Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts 🙏
Oh yes, exactly so! Zeroing in… Cutting out the rest… Difficult decisions and all. Thank you again, AP2!
It’s a very interesting concept that the things we have define ourselves. Thank you for this deep insight David!
I think I live near that plane in your photo…is that a strange reason to get sucked into this post?
Regardless, it worked! And then I was completely caught up in acknowledging points in my life where these phenomena applied to me and then assessing whether I was still experiencing them. Interesting way to end my morning!
Great piece A2- and I love how you so accurately describe depression versus sadness.
Thank you Todd. I’m glad you enjoyed it 🙏