Today I read two articles that together have managed to considerably lower my expectations for myself.
The first is a blog post by Scott Alexander at Slate Star Codex, calling into question some of the conclusions drawn from the growth-vs.-fixed-mindset studies. (H/t to grumpy rumblings for the link.) I've had some mixed feelings about Carol Dweck's work, or at least about the use to which it's been put, ever since I read her book a few years ago, although I do take seriously the suggestion (made I can't remember where -- perhaps in Claude Steele's Whistling Vivaldi?) that the idea of growth mindset is useful even if it's not exactly true.
Anyway, in my typical way, I've been feeling down on myself for what I perceive as my fixed mindset all year, mostly around learning Hebrew. As you know, I've really struggled with learning Hebrew, and various people kept telling me I needed to adopt a growth mindset about it, which just made me grumpy. And what finally turned things around for me -- and I'm happy to report that my Hebrew studies do seem to be turning around -- was not changing my mindset, at least not explicitly, but treating myself like a small child who is learning to read. To wit, I started photocopying everything at a bigger size, and suddenly I could read it better! Just like children's books are in a bigger font! Yep, that was pretty much what it took. Now, maybe my idea to enlarge everything says something about my growth versus fixed mindset, but that wasn't the way I thought about it. Rather, I thought about what it's like for little kids to learn to read and mimicked that. (Much like, whenever I'm feeling like I'm about to meltdown, I give myself a snack and a time out. Treating myself like a toddler always seems to work well.)
And the second article I read was an editorial criticizing all of these various happiness studies. There's nothing revolutionary in this piece, nothing that a bunch of people haven't said already, but somehow I was in the mood to take it in today, especially in conjunction with the other article:
"Of course, it’s reasonable to seek to understand what enhances happiness. But somehow in the process we seem to be attempting to change its meaning: to turn it from something serendipitous into an ongoing state that you can achieve by doing the right things, or by following the right advice: Strive, meditate, exercise, educate, marry, see your friends, earn $80,000 a year, sleep eight hours a night and you’ll be happy."
I suddenly realized that one of the things that I tend to beat myself up for is not being happy enough, which somehow becomes about something I'm not doing right.
So today I asked myself, "What would it be like if I just stopped trying to be happy and always monitoring my mood and just let myself have whatever sort of day I'm having?" And my response was a significant and immediate drop in stress!
I'm kind of embarrassed to even be blogging about this, because on reflection it is absolutely ridiculous to have let myself get so sucked into this notion that if only I do everything right and do it with the right attitude that I could have a perfect life. But I know that I'm hardly the first to do so -- indeed, all of those self-help books wouldn't sell if people didn't have this response (and I am such a sucker for self-help books).
But I'm going to break free and not even think about happiness or what I'm doing to promote it. I'm actually wondering if there's a weird sort of anti-New Year's resolution in all of this: "Stop thinking about my life so much" or the like.