All of us face the reality that we will have ups and downs in life – no one is surprised or unaware of this. However, from time to time we also experience a period of being “parked in neutral”…and that sometimes has a bigger impact on us then the positive or negative occurrences. Both positive and negative happenings act as catalysts for action, allowing us to identify preferences, and while you may assume that a positive instance nets you a positive outcome (and negative a negative) that is not always the case. As an example, a friend of mine has been offer the opportunity to go on an all expenses paid vacation for a week in the Caribbean – great opportunity, right? Not for him, and he has the unenviable task of letting his family know that he is not able to go due to other circumstances outside of his control. In this case a positive happenstance has had a negative outcome, and he is unhappy that he cannot take advantage of this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, much more unhappy then if the opportunity had not presented itself at all.
Negative happenings may sometimes be cause for positive outcomes. When faced with adversity we can think of a dozen or more people who made something positive out of that adversity (Nelson Mandela comes to mind, so does someone who has enhanced his or her life ten-fold by rising above the permanent effects of a medical disorder). In the midst of these positive and negative happenings we may not be able to predict the outcome, and more often then not a windfall will net a positive outcome while a bad day builds on itself, sometimes turning into a bad week. But in both happenings there are external instigators literally driving our need to chose how we will respond and, being human, respond we do.
But what about neutral? Sometimes neutral is a very positive thing, like when we know we are too sick to be of any use to anyone, sending in our regrets and turning off our phone for a day or more of uninterrupted sleep and healing. There is something about the “permission” in being temporarily ill (and truly too exhausted to even worry) that allows us to say “I’ll pick it all back up later, for now I rest” – putting all our energies into that rest because it is the only thing we can focus on. That is one example of neutral, but this example demonstrates a choice, one that is time bound one because as soon as we are back to feeling ourselves we quickly re-enter the stream of life. Neutral shows up in other ways as well, as when we find ourselves in a place where there is no imperative to do something in the immediate future. This isn’t a deliberate lack of action, or a withdrawal. It is a reaction to the lack of stimulus, or a need to exercise preference that creates this vacuum where there is either no set timeframe in which to act, or no apparent path to follow (or so many paths to follow that we actually are at a loss for what it is exactly we want to do). As long as there is no rush, we’ll just hang out here not making a decision. This space comes about sometimes through job loss, or an unforeseen circumstance; something perspective altering. It can last for a few hours, a few days, or longer.
Like weightlessness in space, neutral has it’s own “feeling”. It can be hard to describe, but often is characterized by the expression of frustration. As expressed by one individual, “When I was employed I could plan family meals, a birthday party, work on a major project in the evenings and I got everything done effortlessly. Now that I don’t have to be anywhere in particular I can’t even seem to get my small ‘to do’ list done each day!”. We’ve all felt this ambivalence at some point in life, and been confused by it. We know what we are capable of, and there is a will to do it, until there isn’t the need to make a choice between what will and will not get done in a given time frame…and as a consequence (sometimes) nothing gets done.
This is different then the context of staying in one’s pajamas all day, which is a sign of withdrawal. Neutral is ordinary people getting up each morning as they usually to do to face the day and then quickly losing the intrinsic motivation to get something done because there is no real rush, or need, to do it today. Neutral also presents itself for people who are at a cross road in life, either through retirement, or experiencing the need to re-think some things and taking the time to do that. Here neutral sometimes presents itself as “everything looks good, and nothing looks good”. From hobbies to careers you can get excited about something, but as you head into looking into it more deeply (in preparation to execute on it) all the wind disappears and your sails collapse leaving you still on the water, and you don’t know why. Many people who have experienced this neutral place use phrases like “untethered”, “can’t find my footing”, “scattered”. You get the idea, you’ve probably had this feeling; it can be very frustrating.
We don’t get stuck in neutral solely because of an external factor, we get stuck in neutral because there is an imbalance in our available range of options. On the surface having the time needed to let us “figure stuff out” seems to be the optimal way to approach decisions, especially those involving life changes. It is a gift (one that we may have given to ourselves or was thrust upon us through circumstance), but what we may find when we get all this time and space is our need to make decisions, to identify preferences, is imbalanced. As with the example at the start, being “choice-less” due to circumstance signals an imbalance in our preferences (we can’t exercise our preference), but so too does having a great wide field of boundless time and options (too many options to determine preference). As humans we work much better where there is a balance, when we have a context that allows us to make a choice between option A or option B. What is optimal is not the time to make a choice, but having optimal options to choose from. The path out of neutral is curiosity and discernment, guiding you to identify those options, understanding why they are preferred options, and then creating the environment where you are in a position (possibly even having an imperative) to make a choice. As Dan Gilbert puts forward in his TEDTalk “The Surprising Science of Happiness” there is unanticipated joy in being totally stuck – it gives us the imperative to have to make a choice and this makes us happy. Enjoy your choices in life.
To learn more about this phenomenon, and how it impacts our happiness, take a look at this TEDTalk from Dan Gilbert “The Surprising Science of Happiness”. http://www.ted.com/playlists/171/the_most_popular_talks_of_all?gclid=CKeAiIDp78oCFQoNaQodNkYG9g