When you decide to do something — anything, really — what is going through your mind?
Depending on the situation, perhaps you’re thinking one of the following:
These are just a few of the many common reasons that we do what we do.
Sometimes our actions come before our motivations, like when we are literally forced to do something and we make up a different, perhaps rosier, story for why. But more often than not, especially for those of us living in the developed world, it’s the other way around. Our motivations tend to drive our actions.
If we are motivated to be happy we’ll do things that make us happy. If we are motivated to be comfortable we’ll do things that make us comfortable. If we are motivated to bolster our reputation we’ll do things that bolster our reputations.
Our motivations tend to drive our actions.
But what if we predominantly desire activities that will lead to a meaningful life? Not those that will necessarily make us feel good now, but those that will fulfill us over the long-haul? What if our motivation is personal growth and becoming?
The psychologist James Hollis is someone who has given a lot of thought to these questions, and his answer — in the form of yet another question — has provided a heuristic I’ve been using to great benefit as of late:
“Ask yourself of every dilemma, every choice, every relationship, every commitment, or every failure to commit,” he writes in his book, What Matters Most, “Does this choice diminish me, or enlarge me?”
Not everything you do has to be supremely enlarging. I’m a firm believer in embracing the simple joys of life, and the latest psychological science says doing so is important for resilience. You can ask my wife, Caitlin: I’ve got nothing against watching a Netflix comedy come 8PM, when I can hardly spell my name let alone construct a worthwhile thought, let alone a cogent sentence.
And yet, when it comes to the larger life decisions — for example: deciding whether or not to marry; have kids; pursue a new career; devote yourself to running an ultramarathon; begin volunteering or giving of yourself in some other way — I think Hollis hits the nail on the head. If your goal is to live a meaningful and considered life, I’m not sure there’s a better guide for deciding what to do — at least for the big things — than asking his question.
“Ask yourself of every dilemma, every choice, every relationship, every commitment, or every failure to commit: Does this choice diminish me, or enlarge me?”
As for the answer, that’s up to you: The things that diminish you, don’t do. The things that enlarge you, do.
Brad Stulberg writes about health and the science of human performance. He’s a columnist at Outside Magazine and New York Magazine.
Originally published at medium.com