Live your life

A question I have asked many individuals in one-to-one discussions and groups of people I have been working with has been: Are you living your life or is your life living you? This is not just playing with words; it is a very, very important question. It has major implications.

I have been involved in some very interesting and enlightening discussions as a result of asking that question. It has helped so many people realise that their approach to their life in so many ways is a passive one. Things happen to them; they accept them, learn to live with them; and then more things happen.

The irony of this is that we are constantly making choices, whether deliberate decisions or choices we make without even realising that we are doing so. And yet, despite all those opportunities to make changes, to move in a direction we would be happier with, so many of our choices result in maintaining the status quo, the passive life.

Many self-proclaimed gurus have made a great deal of money (or tried to) by offering magical solutions that can make you more successful, happier and better off in so many ways. A recurring theme in these is the process of ‘getting hold’ of your life, recognizing what is holding you back and then moving forward. Of course, by their very nature, these things tend to oversimplify complex issues, but their basic premise is fairly sound. But, we don’t need a magic solution; we just need to look carefully at what the comfortable routines we rely on are and, for each one, decide whether they are helping or hindering. That will then give us the basis of a plan for moving forward (preferably with the support of at least one person we fully trust). This is not necessarily simple or easy, but nor does it involve any magic spells or potions, literally or metaphorically.

We are habit-forming creatures and, for the most part, that is no bad thing. Habits unclutter life to a certain extent and give us a sense of familiarity, rhythm and security. They also save us a lot of time and effort. However, they also have their downside. They can block off interesting avenues of exploration; they can numb us so much that we miss important subtleties and miss out on important opportunities. They can stifle us.

Habits are inherently conservative, which is what can make them useful (they give us stability), but it is also what can make them problematic. We can so easily become controlled by our habits; we can become their puppets, rather than being the puppet masters.

Much of the time we are not even aware that we are relying on a habit; we slot so easily and comfortably into them. In a very real sense, our habits are part of who we are – our characteristic behaviours, our attitudes and what we feel comfortable (or ‘at home’) with. The French sociologist, Pierre Bourdieu, used the term, ‘habitus’ to refer to our own private world, our own sort of personal culture. Its links with both habit and habitat are not coincidental – it is where we live, figuratively speaking and the routines that keep us there.

Our habitus is a source of comfort and security for the most part, but it can also become a prison if we allow ourselves to get too locked into it, no longer open to new experiences, opportunities and risks.

So, that brings us back to this key question: Are you living your life or is your life living you? To what extent you are successful in life (however you define success) is likely to depend in no small measure on how you answer it.