It’s no secret that scientists condition lab mice to act certain ways by offering them a big incentive—food. When the mice reach it, they get to eat, and are satisfied. In human terms, we’re also conditioned to act a certain way throughout our lives in order to obtain the “cheese” being dangled in front of us. When we reach it, we’re told, THEN we’ll be happy. Happiness is our cheese.
But if we’re constantly looking to what is next as we go through life, when, then, are we ever satisfied? If the answer is “never,” then we’re left to constantly search for happiness that never comes. Obviously, this “race to nowhere,” encouraged by our society and culture, is flawed. As I’ve discussed in a previous blog post, this needs to be replaced with the “race to right here, right now.” What you have right now can be enough. Who you are right now can be enough. What you’re doing right now can be perfectly sufficient and enough.
In my work with teens, I’ve often been asked whether this type of thinking provides young adults with a good excuse for not setting goals, like not taking part in extra-extra curricular activities to beef up college applications. Don’t get me wrong—it’s important for teens to have goals and move forward in life; this is necessary in order to become socially and emotionally balanced young adults of society. What’s not good is blindly following someone else’s idea of what you are “supposed” to be, the path you need to take to get there, and the speed at which it needs to happen.
When I talk to teens about this, I have no problem giving away one of the biggest secrets of all: even adults don’t have all the answers. Parents, teachers, coaches, and bosses still don’t always get it right. Many of them still don’t know how to be “right here, right now” without racing to get somewhere else. Many of them aren’t happy. It is OK to take your own lead, find your own way, and determine your own path. Itmight not be the one that is already laid out in front of you.
So how do you get out of the rat race? How can we break generations of questionable patterns and habits? Well, for example—perhaps it isn’t necessary to be involved in every possible extra curricular activity out there. If you’re feeling overwhelmed by your schedule, why not make a list of all your activities and prioritize them. For each line item, ask yourself: Am I doing this just to do it? Do I enjoy it? Will it bring me some fulfillment? If I remove it, will it make a difference? It’s OK to realizethat your plate is too full, and there is nothing wrong in occasionally saying “no” to something. Balance is the key. If we don’t start learning how to pace ourselves as teens, when will we?
I once had a teen client (entering her senior year) tell me that while she was on her summer vacation, she was planning on taking on two internships, working a job, and hiring a coach to help her prepare for her college applications. She was clearly overwhelmed. I then asked her what she had planned for fun. She looked at me dumbfounded, as if she really couldn’t understand what I had said. I suggested she remove one of her internships and cut down the amount of time she was going to spend with the college prep coach. I felt so strongly about her needing to cut back that I told her that she could blame me if her parents were upset.
We’re all still learning to find the balance between too much and not enough—teens and adults alike (yes, including me!). The earlier you start practicing, the better. Make it a priority to be happy right as you are, right now. That, just maybe, is enough.