35-39: I have everything: Why am I still unhappy?
By the time I was 33, I felt like I had made good life decisions and had secured a solid foundation from which I would build the life that I had always wanted. I had gotten permission to get a second Ph.D., which allowed me to dive even deeper into the graduate work where I increasingly felt at home. I had a wife who loved and supported me, a kid that was brilliant and hilarious, friends who were willing to engage my heart and my mind, mentors who respected and appreciated me. I had it all.
I worked harder to feel like I deserved the love and good things in my life. I became far more socially active. I started to manage (and play) volleyball, softball, and ultimate frisbee. I hosted a poker game for my friends (small stakes, big fun). I pushed myself to do more, to be more, to read more, to write more. I accomplished a lot, but every victory felt anticlimactic: nothing, no matter how fulfilling, could fill the feeling that something was wrong. I did more and more, grew increasingly tired, and finally discovered that even as I found certain limits to my endurance—I still behaved in ways that were inconsistent with my values and character.
I received recognition and awards for my teaching and writing. Opportunities opened up, and I began to publish books and articles. When I could not find a fit in the academic job market—despite all appropriate qualifications—I believed that there was something wrong with me that caused me to fail to find the things I was qualified to have. I was in a privileged place because my wife had promised to support the family and had a secure job that would let this happen. I could continue my academic interests, not take jobs I found uninteresting. There would be traveling, vacations, conferences, live music, good food—everything that I could think to want. Even if I could not find a job, I felt like I had it all.
At the same time, I found that my emotional barometer had moved from “not unhappy” to simply “unhappy.” I knew that I could have anything that I wanted, if I knew how to ask for it, but I did not know how to ask myself what I wanted for myself. I already felt guilty for what I had because I did not think I deserved it, despite the work I had put into it. I knew, even if indirectly, that I had “earned” the good things that were there. It did not matter. I still didn’t feel like it belonged to my life.
I began to realize that the answer might not be in doing more, but in having less. I sensed, slowly, that it was wrong to accept good things if I did not feel like they were mine, and that I needed to listen to my own sense of what was good for me. Without a foundation of trusting myself first, anything I built would founder. Ultimately, I needed to learn the difference between what others identified as good things, and what things are the best good for me. I would find peace only through giving up the former and focusing on the latter.