Gabriella Nissan, Psy.D.
I'm not suffering, but am I thriving?
Our society pays a great deal of attention to extremes. On one end of the spectrum, we focus on sports teams on winning streaks, celebrities who live lavish lifestyles, and billionaire entrepreneurs. On the opposite end of the spectrum, we
focus on impoverished communities, crashing stocks, and the latest political scandal.
What doesn’t get paid much attention are things that are considered “normal” or “average.” Things in this space often get lost in the shuffle. No one is particularly interested in hearing about the sports team that wins games as frequently as it loses, or an ordinary company that is neither booming nor in bankruptcy. Given the emphasis our society places on extremes, the reality is that, oftentimes, when people and situations are “average”, they may gets overlooked. So let’s talk about what differentiates the “average” experience from that of extremes on either end of the continuum.
To help clarify this distinction, let's use the above scale ranging from -10 to 10 with 0 in the middle. On this line, -10 represents extreme levels of pain and suffering, such as severe mental or physical health challenges, financial distress, or relationship difficulties, and 10 represents thriving, such as a life filled with fulfillment, purpose, reward, and consistency with one’s values. Zero represents something in the middle; you’re not experiencing extreme pain nor are you thriving. It’s important to recognize that the absence of extreme pain or suffering does not necessarily indicate the presence of thriving–-there’s a spectrum.
Where a person falls on this spectrum is extremely subjective. At first glance, someone living in poverty may be deemed to be on the negative side of the spectrum. Likewise, a successful athlete may be seen as being on the far end of the positive side of the spectrum. In reality, the person living in poverty may be living a fulfilling life consistent with their values (e.g., connecting with loved ones, caring for friends, and practicing spirituality). On the other hand, a successful athlete may be so consumed with their career or living up to others’ expectations that they may fail to maintain contact with their values, with what truly matters to them.
In many cases, people consider themselves to fall somewhere near the average point on this spectrum. They may not feel as if they are suffering in their experiences, but may also not feel they are living as their best selves. Perhaps you feel your job is “okay”, your relationships are “fine”, and your health is “could be better”. While there is certainly nothing wrong with feeling “fine” or “okay”, it may suggest that you are feeling a lack of fulfillment or reward in the ways you’d like.
At this point, you are likely asking yourself what you can do to set yourself up to thrive. Here are a few helpful tips to keep in mind:
Gauge where you fall on the spectrum: How would you describe your experiences and overall life satisfaction? Do you feel energized and charged up in your life or do you feel like you're trudging through? The first step is to assess what you think and feel.
Identify your values: What matters to you? How do you want to live your life? What do you want your life to stand for? Oftentimes, we get caught up in our day to day responsibilities and lose sight of what truly matters to us. Once we identify our specific values, we can be more intentional to live a life led by these values.
Make decisions to act in ways that are consistent with your values: The first step in moving towards your values is to make the decision to do so. What is one specific thing you can do today that will bring you one step closer to what matters to you? You won’t feel like you’re suddenly thriving overnight. Rather, thriving comes from consistent committed actions to move towards your values.
Allow yourself to experience pain when challenges arise: Thriving does not mean you never experience pain. Painful thoughts, negative emotions, and challenging life events are inevitable and normal parts of the human experience.
Keep in mind that you are on your own journey. Everyone has a unique perspective on what thriving entails and what steps need to be taken to get there. There is no “right” and “wrong” way for a person to live as their best selves. It starts with an open conversation with yourself to examine where you are and where you’d like to see yourself.