During my run yesterday, I listened to a Talk of the Nation podcast from last week in which guest host Andrea Seabrook interviewed CBS News national correspondent Jim Axelrod about his new book, "In the Long Run: A Father, a Son, and Unintentional Lessons in Happiness.”
In a way, it was a familiar story: middle-aged man comes to an epiphany regarding the fact that he has reached a significant (and long-sought) level of professional success but sacrificed his physical health, his family life and his general well-being in the process. And in a way, the path Axelrod followed to remedy his problems were familiar too: he started training for a marathon, cut back on work commitments, and spent a lot more time with his children.
Still, sometimes it’s the repetition of familiar, even archetypal, stories that seems to resonate most, at least for me. As if hearing something repeatedly is what it takes to buy into the story’s importance and relevance.
One of the most useful implications in Axelrod’s story, from my perspective, was the point that it really helps to identify your personal priorities. I wrote earlier this summer about looking to my kids to figure out what’s fun – this is similar, but it’s about being able to defend to your own conscience just what matters to you. Or sometimes not being able to defend it, but making it an ongoing goal to reach the point where you can. Another topic I’ve written about a lot lately is feeling overwhelmed with – and resentful of – volunteer commitments. I still can’t defend to my conscience why the right thing for me to do is to shed some of these responsibilities, which seem important and worthwhile but only serve to annoy me when the time comes to execute on them.
One reason that the week I spent in Colorado last month was so meaningful to me was that it provided the ideal Petrie dish as far as experimenting with where my priorities truly lay. On my own, without my family to care for, my house to maintain, or my friendships and other daily social interactions to nurture, I could become self-absorbed, attending only to that which truly mattered to me.
And what I ended up doing with my time during those glorious, luxurious, wide-open six days wasn’t so much a revelation as a confirmation. It turned out I was right, all those times when I sat in church meetings or carpool lines telling myself that if I had no other responsibilities at this moment, here’s what I would be doing. I spent tons of time outdoors in physical fitness pursuits: biking, hiking, running, power-walking. I pursued writing assignments along with unassigned writing projects. I attended almost, but not quite, as many of the author talks and panels at the Aspen writers’ conference as I possibly could – once in a while I opted for another hike or leisurely stroll through town instead of the lecture hall, and that too helped me define my priorities. I kept up with the newspaper and tried to fit in some additional pleasure reading as well.
In “real life,” as opposed to escapes from real life like the Colorado trip, my primary responsibility is to my children. They are still young, and I consider caring for them to be my highest priority right now. But in order to pursue happiness, as Jim Axelrod pointed out, it helps to identify one’s other priorities as well. I’ve decided that not only volunteering but also yoga and editing jobs are less important to me than I once thought. I’ve also decided that opportunities to write, hike, bike and read are and will probably continue to be vital sources of happiness and inspiration. And as Jim Axelrod explained and many of the show’s callers supported, crystallizing those issues is a critical step in the process of self-actualization.