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Ask Ariely: On a Magnificent Milestone, Processing Pain, and Relentless Reflection

Here’s my Q&A column from the WSJ this week  and if you have any questions for me, you can tweet them to @danariely with the hashtag #askariely, post a comment on my Ask Ariely Facebook page, or email them to AskAriely@wsj.com.

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Dear Dan,

I know that you’re turning 50 this year. How are you handling the big milestone?

—Abigail 

As you can imagine, I was rather apprehensive about my 50th birthday, but I decided to embrace it and designed my year with some extra time to reflect.

In fact, I am writing to you from the sixth day of a 30-day hike along the Israel National Trail, which spans the country of my birth from Eilat to the Lebanese border. I wanted to disconnect from technology and have more time to think about what I want from life and want to do next. Six days in, checking email only late at night, I’m already in a more relaxed and contemplative mode.

I also designed the hike to help me think about earlier stages in my life. So for each day along the trail, I have invited family and old friends to join me to walk and reflect on the road behind. I’ve just finished a day of hiking with six friends from first grade, and talking about our joint history and deep friendships made me calmer than I could have imagined.

Sure, I’m a bit worried about aging. But so far, taking myself out of the usual hurly-burly and opening up space to reconnect with loved ones is proving to be an amazing antidote to the 50th blues.

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Dear Dan,

How do people recover from horrible injuries, psychological traumas and other life-altering events? Is it character or circumstances that dictate whether people crumble or rebound?

—Lionel 

My sense, as someone who suffered very serious injuries as a teenager, is that the answer is both. Resilience is surely a function of one’s character and level of support, but it also has to do with the circumstances of the injury.

One of the most interesting lessons we have learned on this subject comes from Henry K. Beecher, the late physician and ethicist. In his 1956 study of pain in military veterans and civilians, Beecher showed how important it is to understand how people interpret the meaning of their injuries. These interpretations, he argued, can shape the way we experience trauma and pain.

Beecher found that veterans rated their pain less intensely than did civilians with comparable wounds. When 83% of civilians wanted to take a narcotic to manage their pain, he found, only 32% of veterans opted to do likewise.

These differences depended not on the severity of the wound but on how individuals experienced them. Veterans tended to wear injuries as a badge of honor and patriotism; civilians were more likely to see injuries just as unfortunate events that befell them. The more we interpret events as the outcome of something that we did, rather than something done to us, the better our attitude and recovery.

This lesson, while very important for traumatic injuries, also applies to the small bumps of daily life.

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Dear Dan,

My relationship with my husband is going downhill, and I can’t stop thinking about it—which is putting an added strain on our marriage. What can I do?

—Rachel 

Trying not to think about something is one of the best ways to ensure that you think about it constantly. If you try not to think about polar bears for the next 10 minutes, you will think more about them in those 10 minutes than you have in the past 10 years.

The same is true for your relationship with your husband. Instead of trying not to think about your marital woes, try reflecting on the good things in your relationship—then try to find activities together that will strengthen your bond. Good luck.

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal here.


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