What do you want from your life?

To build on emotional agility is to look at your life and decide what you want from it.

In 2000, Tom Shadyac, the director of Hollywood blockbusters like Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, seemed to be on top of the world. He was successful; he was rich; he was still relatively young. But he wasn’t happy. He’d spent years working toward an ideal life, and yet, when he got there, he longed for something different, something simpler.

It just goes to show that it’s hard to make decisions that are truly our own, especially when success is judged by standards that have nothing to do with the individual involved.

If we don’t think about it, we tend to blindly follow the examples of those around us or live according to an abstract blueprint. The name for this phenomenon is social contagion. You might think you want to play golf, for example, but in fact, you only play because your peers do. The same holds true of money, property, cars and family.

But unless you actually happen to enjoy the same activities as your friends, you may feel empty. This is why Tom Shadyac eventually sold most of his possessions, donated significant amounts of money to charity and opened a homeless shelter. He found it more fulfilling to do what he wanted to do, rather than what society expected of him.

So fight the urge to follow the herd, and think carefully about what you really want for yourself and from life. A sense of clarity will change your life for the better.

One psychological exercise you might like to try is writing a letter to your future self. Can you imagine who you’ll be then, and what you would like to say to that person now? Write about who you are now, and what’s important to you. Writing will help you articulate what matters most to you.

It’s no parlor game, either. The results speak for themselves. A 2013 study by psychologist Karen Gelder showed that participants became less likely to take part in illegal activities after engaging in exercises like this one.

Consider this normal relationship quarrel. Cynthia’s been scrimping and saving for years. And now David, Cynthia’s partner, wants to splurge the money on a family trip to the Grand Canyon.

Well, this is actually a real-life example from a 2004 study. Cynthia and David were actually being filmed as they argued, as psychologists Driver and Gottmann attempted to work out what made couples tick by looking at various emotional factors.

For this purpose, the two psychologists built an apartment in their lab. They then invited various couples in and asked them to live their lives as normally as possible while the cameras were rolling. It might sound like an odd experiment, but it did reveal some deeper truths about happiness in relationships.

Most importantly, the researchers found that the manner in which couples responded to requests for emotional bonding was critical for building mutual happiness and for Moving On positively in their emotional lives.

They saw that partners engaged in all sorts of activities, all geared to getting emotional responses from each other, such as pointing out a beautiful object. The partner being petitioned for engagement then tended to react in one of three ways. They either turned toward their partner and offered some sort of response, turned away and didn’t respond at all or they reacted strongly against their partner’s suggestion, saying, for instance, that they wanted to be left alone.

These small behaviors might have seemed inconsequential at the time. But when the researchers revisited the couples six years later, those who had shown high levels of positive emotional response to requests for attention were all still married. Those who had turned away or ignored their partners during the experiment were mostly separated or divorced six years later. So, in order to Move On with your emotional agility, practice making yourself more emotionally available to your partner or friends. 

Do you remember what it took to learn to ride a bike? The excitement, the crashes, the elation when you finally managed to keep it going straight? Does cycling still bring you the same feelings? Of course not. It’s now just run-of-the-mill.

Well, it turns out that in order to thrive you need to be challenged and develop emotional agility. Once you get too proficient at something, it’s easy to switch on autopilot. This, in turn, leads to rigidity, disengagement and boredom.

It’s fine to go through the motions for mundane tasks like brushing your teeth. But life quickly becomes dull and unfulfilling if you aren’t consciously challenged by it. A routine task or job just gets tedious.

It’s important, then, to spice things up a bit. Search for something a little daring. Maybe you could launch a new initiative at your workplace?

That said, though it’s good to be stimulated, you shouldn’t overdo it.

The trick is to balance a little positive stress from new situations with secure feelings of assurance and calm. This is known as living at the edge of your potential. That edge is a line that can be gradually pushed forward, but you shouldn’t suddenly overstep it.

A good way to start challenging yourself, perhaps, is to learn a language or how to play a musical instrument.

Or you could find small challenges in your daily tasks. You could, for instance, walk to work in a mindful manner, paying attention to your surroundings and movement, instead of daydreaming or fretting about your to-do list.

So we’ve looked at what it takes to practice emotional agility. Let’s consider an example from the workplace to round things off.

It’s easy to get the wrong impression of someone. The person might seem picture perfect, with a good job and a close family, but then, after you’ve exchanged a few words, you might get the sense that a nervous breakdown is brewing, and that he or she is in fact stuck in emotional distress.

When we’re not emotionally agile, we get stuck.

Erin, a friend of the author, got trapped in just this way. She was a mother of three, working a job four days a week, but she really struggled to keep her two lives separate. However, she did not show her distress to anyone, or take the time to make changes.

On one occasion, her boss scheduled a phone meeting on her day at home. Erin felt she couldn’t say no, but she was also acutely aware that it would be embarrassing if her children could be heard mid-kerfuffle in the background. She ended up taking the call in her closet, crouching beneath her clothes. It was right there, ensconced in her closet, that Erin realized she had to move beyond her threshold of discomfort, talk with her boss and improve her situation.

This is the great benefit of emotional agility. It helps us make the changes we need to, in order to get unstuck in our lives.

So she mustered all her courage. She needed to know her feelings and explain to her boss just what was wrong. Here’s what she came up with. She resented the troubles she had balancing her work and family life. She was struggling with perfectionism. She took the time to explain that while she loved her work, her day off was sacrosanct. She needed it for her family.

The clarification helped all parties and Erin could finally stop being so anxious.

The lessons of emotional agility are clear and they can be applied to work relationships and life generally. Remember to distance yourself from the negative patterns in your life, move out of your comfort zone and find creative solutions. The benefits are yours for the taking.

If you’re trying to find more fulfillment in your life, you need to develop your emotional agility – the ability to put distance between yourself and your negative emotional patterns. This gives you the space to examine them and the room to find constructive solutions for your problems.

So have a go at this one at home. Skip the small talk and aim for meaningful conversations. The next time you’re spending time with friends or family, ask yourself if you’re really engaging with them, or whether small talk is being used to deflect or avoid real issues. Don’t be afraid. Go deep and go meaningful. You’ll all feel better for it in the long run.

Check out my related post: Are you born with emotions or do you learn them?

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