The incidence of chronic disease is rampant amongst teenagers. A 2014 paper out of Indianapolis demonstrated an 830 percent increase in hospital admissions for pain in adolescents over a seven-year span. In the vast majority of patients a cause of the symptoms could not be found. I gave a talk at a high school a few years ago and was told that over 350 of the 1500 students had a chronic medical problem that had to be monitored. Eating disorders are increasing, even amongst males. Teen suicide is a serious problem. We have more resources and opportunities at our disposal than at any point in human history. We live in a free country with unlimited opportunities. Yet much of the population is miserable. We keep wringing our hands about the problem but are not coming up with real solutions. What is going on?
First, we have too many choices. I will never forget during my psychology course in medical school that volunteers’ anxiety was equally as high when given an equivalent choice about positive options or negative ones? Humans have trouble with choice and we don’t like feeling anxious.
Trapped by success
Second, we are encouraged to experience life to the fullest and achieve. We are entering organized sports at an early age, traveling the world, and given wonderful options of becoming creative. There is no limit as to what is possible. That also the problem. You can achieve many things but you cannot outrun your mind. What is even more of a problem is that when you have accomplished what you think should give you peace of mind and you are still unhappy, where do you go next? Then you really feel trapped.
I recall riding a chairlift with my son in Utah during the midst of my anxiety-driven burnout. I had a great practice, beautiful family, nice house, and was becoming financially secure. I was miserable and the sense of being trapped was overwhelming. That same year I was talking to a middle-aged gentleman who broke down crying because he had sold his business for 45 million dollars and did not know what to do. It had been his life. Over an 18-month span while I lived in Sun Valley, ID six men between 45 – 60 committed suicide. All of them on the surface had everything you could imagine.
Third, even when your situation is idyllic your brain is going to search for threats. The human body is designed to survive; not to have a great time. This was pointed out to me by my friend, Dr. Fred Luskin, who is the author of Forgive for Good. Humans also have the problem in that danger can be created in our minds, which Dr. David Burns terms, “cognitive distortions”. White bears and ANTS
Additionally, we make up stories in our heads about who we should be and then drive ourselves unmercifully to attain these heights. Since our “ideal self” is unattainable we have now set ourselves up for endless and progressive frustration. My son, Nick, and his best friend, Holt, were competing in mogul skiing at a national level their focus was on winning. If they lost, then they were pretty unhappy until the next event. David Elaimy, their performance coach and I kept trying to tell them to enjoy the process and be happy they were able to travel the world and compete. The day after Holt won the national championship he finally said, “You were right. I still have to get up and go to work. My life has not changed that much.”
Golf and life
Golf may be the ultimate sport that highlights this issue. David Elaimy, is a performance coach who teaches our fellows performance concepts to be utilized in surgery. He pointed out that at the end of a round of golf that 80% of golfers are unhappy with their game – because of the score. It personally took me years to get past the score but my biggest accomplishment in golf is truly enjoying being outside with my friends and seeing how well I can do. I do not have the time to drop my handicap but it no longer makes sense to me to spend any part of my free time being frustrated about a score. It is just a story.
A life-changing moment on the golf course
Here is a letter from one of my administrative colleagues who I really enjoy working with. He had read my post, The Tale of Two Golf Holes. The joy of my second hole-in-one had been completely wiped out by my frustration. It was one of the most enlightening moments of my life.
The frustration and joy of golf can easily lead to some strong emotions including anger. I know my brother and I struggled with that for a long time, until one day I realized what it is all about.
My brother was having a particularly difficult day on the course with my Dad some years ago and was just about ready to throw a fit. My Dad told him to stop playing. They both laid down on the green, looked up at the clouds on a beautiful day and took a moment to appreciate spending time together outside with nobody else around. “This is what it is all about.” My brother walked up back to his ball and asked my Dad, “So I don’t have to keep playing, I can just walk the rest of this hole and start back up on the next one if I want?” Right as my Dad was about to affirm his question he whispers to my brother to turn around. Not five feet behind him stood a deer.
My dad and brother always describe this as one of their epiphany moments, and for me it illustrates that golf is just a game. While it can be challenging and frustrating, you can’t let that aspect of the game get the best of you and distract you from the joy and awe it can bring. Great article Dave, it really got me thinking of just how toxic anger towards something or someone can be, and how powerful forgiveness can be. (I would add in, “anger towards yourself-perfectionism”)
Be all that you can be?
Defining myself by my accomplishments and “score” has been my entire life. These are deeply etched in behavioral patterns that are not going to disappear. However, by being aware of their presence and power allows me to separate from them. It will be a lifetime process. So just “be” – and enjoy your day.