According to brilliant psychologist and pioneer of the positive psychology movement Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the key to a leading a fulfilling life is striking a balance between action and contemplation:
“Inner conflict is the result of competing claims on attention. Too many desires, too many incompatible goals struggle to marshal psychic energy toward their own ends. It follows that the only way to reduce conflict is by sorting out essential claims from those that are not, and by arbitrating those priorities among those that remain. There are basically two ways to accomplish this: what the ancients called vita activa, a life of action, and the vita contemplativa, or the path of reflection.
Immersed in the vita activa, a person achieves flows through total involvement in concrete external challenges. Many great leaders like Winston Churchill and Andrew Carnegie set for themselves life long goals that they pursued with great resolve, without any apparent internal struggle or questioning of priorities.
Action helps create inner order but it has its drawbacks. A person strongly dedicated to achieving pragmatic ends might eliminate internal conflict, but often at the price of excessively restricting options…sooner or later, however, postponed alternatives might reappear again as intolerable doubts or regrets. What happened to those lovely children who suddenly turned into sullen adolescents? Now that I have achieved power and financial security, what do I do with it? In other words, the goals that have sustained action over a period turn out not to have enough power to give meaning to the entirety of life.
This is where the presumed advantage of a contemplative life comes in. Detached reflection upon experience, a realistic weighing of options and their consequences, have long been held to be the best approach to life…self-knowledge can be pursued in innumerable ways, each leading potentially to greater inner harmony.
Activity and reflection should ideally complement and support each other. Action by itself is blind, reflection impotent” (Csikszentmihalyi 226).
Most of us yearn for what I call a “definiteness of purpose,” a sense of meaning in our lives. I myself always feel this longing intensified after visiting college friends. Ah, my college friends, all so brilliant, so ambitious. Ethan is off in New York getting his PhD and publishing his first papers, Jonathan is finishing his Master’s. The age-old reaction to seeing old friends doing well: momentary happiness for their successes inevitably followed by a “what in the hell are we doing with our selves?”
In order to live a life of purpose and restore order to consciousness, we must organize our day to day lives around certain goals. The problem for most us is deciding which goals are worthy of pursuit. There are essentially two ways of doing this: as Csikszentmihalyi explains, we can lead a vita activa, a life of action, or a vita contemplativa, a life of reflection. Ideally, our lives will be a balance of the two. After all, if we dedicate ourselves too rigidly to a goal without weighing other possibilities or reflecting on our motivations for its pursuit, we might fulfill our aspiration only to be disappointed and filled with regret. On the other hand, if we spend too much time philosophically staring out of windows and brooding, we won’t get off the couch.
We all know people who exemplify vita activa, the unwavering commitment to one goal. People who graduated college, went directly to grad school. No quarter life crisis, no ponderings, no wonderings, no doubts, no mental breakdowns. God, how I envy the steadiness of their ambition, their firm dedication to a goal! I myself am more reflective, less sure. No matter how hard I try, I can never escape vita contemplativa. Like many of us, I wasn’t blessed with an absolute conviction of my purpose in life.
Shakespeare once said that “action is eloquence.” Perhaps those of us who are less certain of our callings have to act more on our dreams instead of just think about them. Not that a methodical weighing of options is bad; just that too much rational consideration can quickly become an unproductive type of brooding. Should I become a teacher or a writer? Should I move to New York or San Francisco? Yes, we should meditate on these important questions but never at the expense of meaningful action. Rather than just ruminate on the seemingly endless possibilities open to us as careers, why not try one of them out? Get an internship? Change jobs? Finally write that novel? “What’s our calling?” many of us desperately long to know, “What are we meant to do?” The answer- I think- lies in the doing. Act first, the idea goes, reflect later.
I’ve always been reluctant to commit, both in life and in love. But as Jen Sincero says, we must make the almighty decision: before commitment, there is hesitance, indecision but the moment we resolve to be/do/have something, Providence moves too. Though it’s important to rationally and realistically consider our options, too much contemplation can diminish our sense of what is available to us, not to mention make our lives a painful rendition of Hamlet. So say goodbye to “to be or not to be?” and just do something already. And remember: when meditating on our dreams, we must pretend everything is possible and not let probabilities and odds scare us.