The Kickass Guide to Answering "How's Life?"


I often feel disappointed with my answer. It's such a great opportunity and I'm thrown off, every time.

There is no right answer, really. I just want to make it something cool. "Life? Life is just a hail of machine gun bullets and ice cream cakes, ya know?"

Brecht Vandenbroucke

But usually, I manage something simple and say, "Life is good." "Not bad." "Could be better." Or "busy". That's the sad, easy answer Tim Kreider picked apart in the beautiful New York Times Opinions piece The Busy Trap. And then I follow it up with some news on my end.

It could be that for 99% of our species' existence, human beings were only a hair different from monkeys, just looking to fuck, eat, and survive. Simple as that. No one had to slap you on the back and ask, "How's Life?"

Even a century ago, life could have been boiled down to something simple. Life was the yield of your crops or the birth of your newborn. Life was hard and we were always busy with the burdens of it.

The present is something altogether different. Life is still busy but in a different way. We are flooded with information. Author Dan Levitin explains what we have to deal with every day in The Organized Mind when he writes, "Information scientists have quantified all this: In 2011, Americans took in five times as much information every day as they did in 1986 - the equivalent of 175 newspapers.

The world has grown so complex we're forced to make our own paths. Technology has been the blessing and curse that delivers the information of our lives, however, our motivations are not far from the busy days of our history. Just as we would with finding food or avoiding danger, we take the easiest route and say what we normally say. 

Why not consider the question an opportunity?

We can tell our life's story in an infinite amount of ways, why settle for the simple? 

There is no question human beings like stories. We've evolved from caveman grunts to oral traditions. Now we possess the luxury of telling literally everyone our life story. And there are some major consequences to how we tell it.

Set your whole life aside and consider your workout. What's going through your head when you have dumbbells extended above it? How do you look when you're two miles into a run on the treadmill? How you answer these questions make up the narrative of your activity, and it turns out the narrative is a part of the workout. Author Gretchen Rubin wrote about a study in the NYTimes Well section that says our "self-talk" affects our performance. Bike-riders exercised harder and found it subjectively easier using positive self-talk phrases like "feeling good" during the exercise than those who do not. It just might be that you can trick your caveman monkey brain to push beyond your limits. 

Of course, outside the gym, we're talking to ourselves constantly too. There is no escape from the stories in our minds. And sometimes that can be a depressing thing because we're responsible for our own well-being. The good thing is that this burden is reversible. Jonathan Gottschall, author of The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Humanshows us:

According to the psychologist Michele Crossley, depression frequently stems from an "incoherent story," an "inadequate narrative account of oneself," or "a life story gone awry." Psychotherapy helps unhappy people set their life stories straight; it literally gives them a story they can live with. And it works. According to a recent review article in American Psychologist, controlled scientific studies show that the talking cure works as well as (and perhaps much better than) newer therapies such as antidepressant drugs or cognitive-behavioral therapy. 

This narrative concept is why it's so disappointing to come up with something as uninspired as "not bad" or "real busy", it's what we hear all day in our minds. 

When someone is asking about your life in less-than-ideal time, they really want the juicy bits right away. What's your essence? What's on your mind? No one is sitting on a park bench waiting for you to tell them all the stories of your history. They're waiting for you to offer some chocolate. 

Take two minutes now to reflect.

Keep these guiding thoughts in mind:

  • Cut the shit. No one wants to hear that your life is going down the tubes. You're not going to have anyone help solve your problems if you're whining about them. You're only multiplying the trouble.
  • Share some news. If you have nothing good to say about yourself, say something else. Make it a narrative about someone else. "Life is good. I just can't get this story about Ghost Boy out of my head!"
  • Blind them with science. Historically, life is the best it's ever been. Less violence and less disease. More food and more technology. Take it from the Rational Optimist Matt Ridley.
  • Finish with a surprise. They're expecting you to say your piece and ask the same bullshit question right back. Fuck that. They left it open-ended, so you can make it a conversation. Ask them a better question. Involve them in your life narrative. And if you want help, ask for it - "Life is good, I'm just working on losing a few pounds. Have any advice?" Note you're not whining about something if you're working on it.

Life is the sum of all your days leading to this one. Take an average and a breath. Ask yourself, "What story am I telling myself and what story am I telling everyone else?" Remember, there is no single, right answer. Or as author Ryan Holiday said: "There is no good or bad without us, there is only perception. There is the event itself and the story we tell ourselves about what it means."

Now, think about it and tell me: How's life?