What meaning do you draw from your failures, tragedies, betrayals, disappointments or mistakes? What helps you spring back when things don't go your way, or when you're dealing with the various setbacks and bummers that life invariably throws your way?
Whether it is a religious belief, the desire to win the heart of one special person, a determination to raise your children to be happy and successful, the desire to earn enough money that you will never go without, the drive to get ahead or to prove yourself - or some other transcendent goal that gives your life meaning, purpose and drive - people do better handling their setbacks and disappointments when they have some overarching reason or purpose they're living for. Meaningful work might fit this category. So might a meaningful relationship.
What makes your life worth living? What makes you get up in the morning looking forward to a new day?
These are not casual questions. They are the beginning of a set of recommendations for how to live life well and how to be at peace with yourself. But I'm advising that you answer those question first, because they may be one of the most important things you can do to insure that you're reasonably content and satisfied with your life.
The second very significant thing is to keep your important relationships vital, connected and healthy - with your children, spouse/lover, friends, extended family, neighbors, co-workers and other important people in your life. This requires you to clean up conflicts, misunderstandings and disagreements in a timely, fair, responsive and diplomatic way, and to be attuned to and responsive toward the wishes and feelings of others, as well as yourself. Very few people are happy or content with their life if their important relationships are all messed up. If you have an important relationship that is broken, don't wait for it to get better. Fix it. Give it everything you have. It is more important for your overall happiness and well-being than you think.
A third recommendation for living well is to incline toward taking risks. The down side of this recommendation is that sometimes your risks don't pan out. You open yourself up to that new person or possibility, and you get rejected. But consider what you're doing if you don't attempt to make contact with that attractive stranger, or if you don't apply for that dream job that just opened up. You're rejecting yourself first, so that somebody else can't. You're not even giving yourself the possibility of succeeding, which over time is bound to make you feel defeated and sour. Ask older people, and they will tell you it's the risks they didn't take that they most regret, not the ones they did take. If you take a risk and fail, at least you gave yourself a chance of succeeding, and you can take pride in your gumption and your effort. Don't wait until you're old to learn this lesson. Learn it now.
Fourth, find ways of expanding yourself. Self-expansion is essentially about trying new things on to see if they might fit. It could be about trying new foods, or exploring a new interest, or trying a new activity, or learning a new skill. Or it could involve refining old skills. Or it could represent the continuum of personal growth and personal self-betterment - striving to be a better functioning, healthier and more self-aware version of you. Looking to expand yourself, your skills, your experience and your interests over and over again is the mark of person who is embracing life and who is trying to live life to it's fullest.
Lastly, as confusing as it may sound, find meaning in your losses, failures or mistakes. When bad things happen to you, or when you blunder or stumble, look for the larger message in what has befallen you. Had you become too arrogant or prideful? Were you insensitive or unfeeling toward another? Were you keeping your eye on the ball? Were you deceiving yourself, or otherwise blinded to what was going on? Did you not put enough effort and energy into your goal? Were you too scattered to be focused and effective?
These aren't easy questions to ask, or to answer. But they will help you to cope and learn and grow, and they will assist you in putting disappointment, traumas or failures in perspective - so you can learn from your misfortunes - and rise again for a new day and for new challenges.
Neil Rosenthal is a licensed marriage and family therapist in Westminster and Boulder. His column is in its 19th year of publication, and is syndicated around the world. You can reach him at 303-758-8777, or email him through his website: www.heartrelationships.com.