Are You Experiencing the Happiness Challenge of “Drifting?”

Sailboat drifting at sea

I’ve written before about the happiness challenge of “drift.”

Drift is the decision you make by not deciding, or by making a decision that unleashes consequences for which you don’t take responsibility. Maybe you’re not sure what to do, so you make the default decision. Maybe a particular decision would make someone else very happy—or keep them from being angry—so you do it. (“Drift” isn’t an actual psychological term, like situation evocation or emotional contagion; it’s a term I invented).

I fear drift. Drift feels small, but once unleashed, drift is a powerful, often almost unstoppable, force.

Drift can show up in our work lives.

You go to medical school because both your parents are doctors. You take a job because someone offers you that job. You go to graduate school as a kind of holding pattern.

I drifted into law school. I didn’t know what else I wanted to do, it seemed like a legitimate, useful way to get more education, it would keep my options open…I didn’t really think much about the decision. As it turns out, I’m very glad I went to law school—drift sometimes does lead to a happy result, which contributes to its dangerous appeal—but I didn’t approach law school mindfully. And many, many people who go to law school aren’t happy they went.

Just taking one drifting step can you set you in a course that’s very hard to stop. In my case, I drifted into taking the LSAT (the law-school application test). “Why not, might as well, could come in handy, maybe I’ll be glad I did,” etc.

Drift can also show up in our personal lives.

You get married because all your friends are getting married. You move to the suburbs because everyone your age is moving to the suburbs.

An engaged friend made it very obvious that she didn’t want to get married. I asked her, “Imagine that something happened, and you couldn’t get married next month. Your fiancé absolutely had to move to China for a year, alone, immediately. How would you feel?” “Relieved,” she said. And yet she went through with the wedding, and got divorced a year later.

Drift is different from mindfully deciding not to decide.

Some situations look like drift but aren’t. You may be following a pathless path—and that’s fine, if that’s what you intend to do. Or you may need to choose between multiple courses, with their pros and cons, and you’re still deciding. This isn’t drift, because you’re actively weighing your options. However, if this goes on too long—and it’s hard to know what’s too long—it can become drift.

The word “drift” makes drift sound like the easy path, but it’s not.

The word “drift” has overtones of laziness or ease. Not true! Drift is often disguised by a huge amount of effort and perseverance.

For me, following the path of law was hard—from studying for the LSAT, to getting through law school, to clerking for Justice Sandra Day O’Connor.

The pandemic period has revealed to many people that they’re drifting.

Over and over, people have told me that the pandemic period has made them seriously re-evaluate their lives.

When life is racing forward, and we’re managing the calendar and the to-do list, it’s hard to step back to consider the big picture. For many people, the disruptions of the last year—though they’ve brought so much suffering and hardship to the world–have also brought an opportunity for self-reflection. Sometimes difficult self-reflection.

Many people are asking themselves, “Is this what I want to be doing?” “Is this how I want to spend my life?” “Why am I spending so much time on this, but not nearly enough time on that?” “How did I get here?” These questions often arise when a person has been drifting.

How do you figure out if you’re drifting?

To find out, click here. The more checks you make, the greater your risk for being adrift.

Hoping that a situation will be shaken up from the outside is a sign of drift—and guess what? We just experienced that kind of catastrophe.

So the question becomes: Now what?

To end drift, we must recognize that we’re drifting. It can be painful to contemplate, but valuable.  If this pandemic period has prompted you to reflect on your life, your values, and your interests, take advantage of the moment to think about what steps would help you to create the life you want.



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