Why Changes Are So Big


My last six weeks of being 31 years old were glorious. Easy and beautiful. I had been a pessimist since I was a kid (most of that time without realizing it) and then in late August, something clicked and I no longer saw things in terms of their downsides. It was dramatic and almost effortless and I can’t fully explain how it happened. I just got used to thinking about what I want, and catching myself whenever I started thinking about what I don’t want. It worked.

It wasn’t mania or self-delusion, just a clean, consistent sense that at any moment life is good enough to smile about, and it’s only getting better. My surroundings looked the same but felt different. It was a very different mental landscape, which happened to make much more sense than the one I was used to.

My six-week cruise in a state of near-effortless optimism ran aground somewhere around last Wednesday. There were several factors. The weather changed. Indian summer became cold and nasty overnight. I was stuck in a small town again, which tends to make me a bit loopy.

But it was hubris that sunk me. Optimism felt self-sustaining, and so I kept up cruising speed, even while I eased up on my vigilance around cultivating positive expectations and weeding out negative ones. I steamed on with the smugness of the Titanic’s captain. Unsinkable! I thought. I fell asleep in a deck chair with a smile on my face and a cigar burning in my hand.

I lost track of a few important things, got a bit down, and the dominos started toppling. In a few days my state of mind went from grateful and unworried to cynical and powerless. I hadn’t felt like that in a while. It was alarming. I hit rock bottom this morning, on my birthday.

So I fell off the wagon (if you’re still following my mixed metaphors) but I know the trail well now, and it’s not that hard to catch up with it. I see this incident as a minor shakeup in the long-term, but it sure was a dramatic one.

It led me to an interesting discovery about making major changes: any way of living is really just an interdependent network of habits, and when you make a big change a lot of those connections get broken. Replace a habit or two, and one thing doesn’t necessarily lead you to do everything else you need do in order to stay relatively on top of your life. After a shift there will be holes in the network at first. You need to put all your habits back together again.

In my case, I learned it takes a different set of social habits and working habits to be a functional optimist than it does a functional pessimist. Shifting your thinking habit — from giving more weight to negative thoughts, to giving more to positive ones — is still the crucial change, but it isn’t the whole job. All the supporting habits need to be adjusted. This is what makes a big change big. Not the thing you have to change, which might only be a single habit, but what else you have to move around to make it a stable fit in your life.

For example, getting my writing done was always driven primarily by a fear of feeling bad about not doing it. When I stopped taking fearful thoughts so seriously, life was a lot less stressful, but it was a lot easier to fall behind without feeling like something’s really wrong.

So wading into new territory, even unarguably better territory, means you don’t always know how things are going to come together. If you’ve been doing the same thing for years, even if it doesn’t work that well, at least it works poorly in a predictable way. Shortfalls may be common but blunders are rare.

Having some experience with both sides now, I know without a doubt that optimism is a better fit for me. But that means there is a necessary phase of rebuilding. I have to learn a different way to do everything I do that doesn’t depend on fear or worry, and in the mean time there will be some leaks while I learn the new ropes. I’ve made some social gaffes. I’ve neglected some of my friends. I’ve let my physical fitness go a bit. And I’ve published fewer words recently, something some readers have rightly called me on. I wasn’t going to publish this week either. Too cranky.

This “shakeup” phenomenon is probably a major reason why it’s so hard for human beings to make a lasting major change in life, even if it’s clearly in a better direction. Change the way you do something, and in other areas what used to work might not work anymore.

Say you decide to become less of a homebody. You become active and outgoing and life begins to bloom in ways it never had before, and maybe you suddenly find your relationship with your homebody spouse doesn’t work so well anymore. And so you have to decide how to readjust. Maybe it calls for another dramatic change. In the long run maybe that’s the best thing for you. But it can create some intense short-term friction between the moving parts of your life, enough to scare you back to your still-warm old ways.

I already know that how you feel in life (the tone of your moment-to-moment life, as I talked about in this post) isn’t so much dependent what your situation actually is, but rather on the perspective you currently have about it, the emotional momentum you attribute to it. I was really grumpy this weekend, but that’s just a temporary dip in tone. The content is outstanding, just like it was last week.

But on a day when by 9 a.m. 60 people have wished you a happy birthday, when you have thousands of attentive readers, when Metafilter picks up your article, when you know you’ll go to bed warm and safe like every night, when you have two eyes, two arms, two legs, a loving family and Thai food on the way — then you know that if you don’t feel good, it’s only a perspective issue and nothing else.

Perspective comes and goes. I’m still grumpy and behind in my writing projects. But it’s my birthday and it’s Thanksgiving and I’m rich in all the things that matter.

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