A Matter of Perspective
In Atul Gawande’s essential read about end-of-life healthcare in the United States, Being Mortal, he cites a remarkable study conducted by Stanford psychologist Laura Carstensen that tracked people’s emotions as they age. Initial findings showed that people become happier as they grow older, but further analysis concluded that it wasn’t age per se that caused people to be more emotionally at ease, but rather perspective. Those who sensed that they still had decades left to live tended to desire things consistent with Maslow’s hierarchy of needs: self-fulfillment, achievements, success. Those who sensed that their time left was short desired everyday pleasures and emotional connections to loved ones. Age didn’t matter as much as perspective did. A twenty-something with a chronic illness had similar emotional desires to that of an octogenarian.
Now, I don’t plan on checking out of Planet Earth anytime soon, but my recent experience with foot surgery has me wondering if Carstensen’s studies might be applicable not only to people’s perspectives on mortality, but to their perspectives on their quality of life.
When I was a teenage, I remember watching the adults around me working their asses off on the weekends and thinking, “If I ever consider cutting the lawn and doing the laundry accomplishments, shoot me.” I had big dreams, baby. Who were these schmucks finding fulfillment by doing household chores? There was an older couple who lived a few blocks from my house who spent hours toiling in their yard on their hands and knees, pulling weeds, and the contempt I felt for these people was palpable.
Well, today I raise my hand and say with humility: I would be a happy camper if I could spend a few hours today pulling weeds. Yes, it’s come to that.
For the past week I’ve had limited mobility, and while I recognize that my minor ailment is not a big deal, still I find myself longing for very simple pleasures. The first few days after surgery were rough, and I would have paid someone handsomely for the ability to, say, walk to the bathroom pain-free. When the worst of the pain was over and I was able to walk more freely, I was happy to just get out of the house. Two days ago, I made a short trip to buy groceries at Jewel, and for me that was a BANNER DAY. Today I wish for two things: the ability to partake in a little cardiovascular exercise (something I would normally not be longing for), and a long, hot shower, but I’m still a week away from the first and two weeks away from the second, so I’ll have to settle for playing a little piano and maybe making a Target run. Woo hoo!
I suspect there have been studies much like Carstensen’s that focus on people who’ve had the misfortune of enduring chronic pain or long-term illnesses that have compromised their way of living, and I imagine that people in these positions desire the same things that people whose time is short do: simple pleasures of enjoying the day and being with friends and family.
Both long-term and short-term perspectives are important. As a society we need people who think big and strive to achieve great things. We also need wise people who are nurturing and at ease. Luckily, most of us will get to experience both perspectives in a lifetime, and we might even teeter back and forth between the two, giving us fresh perspectives that allow us to live balanced lives.
For now, I’m going to take what’s available to me: I’m going to nap with my puppy. Not as fulfilling as a hot shower, but not too shabby.