There’s something special about the carefully chosen costumes kids wear trick-or-treating and the way moms layer most with long sleeves to protect them from the chilly fall air. My own kids are much too old and busy with college to dress up, but I have very mixed feelings when I think back to those years. I am happy that my children are growing into successful adults, but also melancholy because each passing year is one year less that they’ll need me. Every stage of life has its joys, but can also bring some sadness about the things that will now remain in the past.
Charlie, a patient, frequently reminisces about how much easier life was before he was a successful entrepreneur. Of course, he is happy and grateful for the successes, but as Charlie reflected back on the days when he had spaghetti, but no money for meatballs, he saw his life as more exciting and his goals much grander than they are today. Kathleen, also a patient, is approaching her 60th birthday with trepidation. When she compared the last decade with the ensuing one, she saw life as a runaway train.
Although no one can stop the passage of time, there is an alternative to living as if life is just speeding by. The key to a more satisfying and meaningful journey is to focus on the many aspects of life that are controllable. Enjoying time with those whose relationships are valuable and engaging in meaningful activities rather than simply completing a daily “to do” list are a start.
Another way to add depth to life is by volunteering and helping others, formally or informally. Research shows those who help others regularly, even their own friends and family, live longer and with greater physical and emotional health. Helping at a food bank, reading to blind people or babysitting grandchildren are all ways to cash-in on good feelings. Animal lovers might consider adopting a rescue pet or giving time to a shelter, adding the joy of wagging tails or nuzzling faces to their days.
A more meaningful life can also be had by planning ahead—not only years into the future, but even hours and days. Each morning you should wake with a plan for the day that includes some diversity. Mary finds meaning in trying out new recipes and offering the results to her husband and widowed neighbor. Sam calls at least one friend or close family member every day to see how they are and arranges get-togethers—even if it’s just for a few minutes. Mary’s culinary exploration and Sam’s social plans keep both of them engaged with the important people in their lives, but in their own ways.
Resisting a rut is another excellent method for warding off the feeling that the past is more meaningful than the present. Check out different neighborhoods, galleries, parks and landmarks outside the usual routes between work and home. Explore new restaurants rather than constantly returning to those that assure you a reliable experience. It is a risk—you might have a bad meal— but exploration and adventure, even at a not-so-risky level, imbue life with experiences that bring meaning.