I pass on clips from another of Arthur Brooks' biweekly articles
on "How to Build a Life." Its discussion of major life changes begins with the obvious major life transition that is being forced upon most of us by the COVID -19 pandemic.
We have been awakening to the reality that the coronavirus pandemic is not a temporary affliction, but an involuntary transition from one way of life to another. Our jobs and personal lives are shifting and, in many cases, will never fully return to “normal.” ...You may never go back to work like before. Dating may never be the same. Your alma mater might go broke and disappear. Will you hug your friends or even shake hands as much as you used to? Perhaps not.
...Even when a transition is completely voluntary, it can be the source of intense suffering, because it involves adapting to new surroundings and changing your self-conception.
If we understand transitions properly, however, we can curb our natural tendency to fight against them—a futile battle, given their inevitability. Indeed, with a shift in mindset, we can make transitions into a source of meaning and transcendence.
Psychologists call the state of being in transition “liminality - you are neither in the state you left nor completely in your new state, at least not mentally. This provokes something of an identity crisis - it raises the question “Who am I?” - which can be emotionally destabilizing.
After interviewing hundreds of people about their life transitions, author Bruce Feiler found that a major change in life occurs, on average, every 12 to 18 months. Huge ones happen three to five times in each person’s life. Some are voluntary and joyful, such as getting married or having a child. Others are involuntary and unwelcome, such as unemployment or life-threatening illness.
...here’s the good news: Even difficult, unwanted transitions are usually seen differently in retrospect than in real time... research shows that we tend to see past events—even unwanted ones—as net positives over time. Though our brains have a tendency to focus on negative emotions in the present, over the years unpleasant feelings fade more than pleasant feelings do, a phenomenon known as “fading affect bias.”
One of the things we learn by not resisting challenging transitions is how to cope with subsequent life changes - a sense of meaning gained through change makes the rest of life seem more stable.
Difficult periods can also stimulate innovation and ingenuity. A large amount of literature talks about “post-traumatic growth,” in which people derive long-term benefits from painful experiences, including more appreciation for life, richer relationships, greater resilience, and deeper spirituality. Another manifestation of this growth, according to some newer scholarship, is heightened creativity.
Life changes are painful, but inevitable. And as hard as they may be, we only make things harder—and risk squandering the benefits and lessons they can bring—when we work against them instead of with them...those who benefit the most from painful periods are those who spend time experiencing and processing them. The right strategy is to accept transitions as an integral part of life, and lean into them.
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