Everyone wants to avoid being in a rut. Getting out of one is a common theme in movies, from “Fight Club” to “(500) Days of Summer” to “Revolutionary Road.” The take-away message is generally that most people are drones, some of us are special (the protagonist and, luckily, you, the viewer), and the special ones must and will escape.
But after the main character plucks up enough courage to change jobs, get married or go back to school, no explanation is offered for how she or he is to avoid falling into a new, slightly shinier rut. We assume the way to avoid the dreaded rut is to be extraordinary, but that’s not a magic bullet.
Having an unusual life, one considered better than those of most people in your milieu, is no guarantee that yours will feel meaningful when theirs don’t. For one thing, that kind of success will just land you in a different milieu, and it’s not as if there’s a happiness and fulfillment guarantee at any socioeconomic level. Research suggests that income is related to happiness, especially when basic needs are at stake, but I haven’t heard of anything to suggest that a certain level of success translates to immunity from feeling like one of the faceless horde. The trope of the high-powered corporate automaton in the deadened marriage is just as common as that of the struggling low-income high school student who has never dared to dream of rising above.
The good news is that if various forms of normatively valuable success aren’t correlated with escaping drudgery, they must not be prerequisites for it. That at least takes some pressure off. Mourning the lack of a brilliant career does not necessitate mourning the potential for a meaningful life or the possibility of a way around Levittown. But if even those who have achieved unusual success or have otherwise uncommonly enviable lives can still feel like they’re living on Revolutionary Road, how can anyone protect herself?
I don’t have empirical support for this, but it seems to me that the answer is to feel like you’re progressing and that your life is improving, that you’re glad you have your life and not somebody else’s, that you enjoy and are grateful for the people in it. There even seems to be a reliable way to accomplish all that. Jon Kabat-Zinn, a mindfulness researcher and professor at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, advises to avoid “being caught and imprisoned by unwise and unexamined habit patterns.” The whole body of mindfulness research and practice, which uses secular meditation to promote health in both medical and psychological contexts, makes this advice and how to implement it much more clear. The gist is that at every moment in your life you should try to be mindful of yourself, rather than ignoring or trying to change your state of mind.
You don’t have to analyze or scrutinize, just be aware of the thoughts, emotions and intuitions passing constantly through your mind. If you do that, not only will you recognize when your life has ceased to feel dynamic, but you’ll be in a position to choose, based on the vast amount of information about yourself that your brain presents to you each day, what you want to do about it.
What matters is not what you think other people would want, what other people think you would want, or what you would feel stupid for passing up. The useful information comes from being aware of our automatic, maybe nonsensical, maybe idiosyncratic reactions to our own lives. With an awareness of your own impulses to change aspects of your life comes an awareness of how you want to change those aspects, and also immunity from living a life constrained by habit patterns that you’ve failed to recognize and that make you unhappy. In other words, a pass out of Levittown.
Personally, I’m all but certain that life is objectively meaningless, but it seems that we can’t be happy without feeling that our lives are meaningful. While it may be silly of us to require that our lives be meaningful in order to enjoy them, it’s unavoidable. Fortunately, we have lots of other silly mechanisms that make us feel life has meaning. The meaning might be an illusion, but the happiness won’t be.
Unlike hitting arbitrary milestones of success, there are certain behaviors that make us feel that life is full and happy, rather than hollow and bleak. Those may differ by person, and even for each person over a lifetime, but as long as we’re not hurting anyone, why not run with whatever they are?
Melanie Langer is a senior in Davenport College.