Quiz: Are You Drifting?

Gretchen Rubin

Gretchen Rubin on creating your own personal happiness

What is “drift”? Drift is the decision you make by not deciding, or by making a decision that unleashes consequences for which you don’t take responsibility.

One of the problems of drift is that we try to deny we’re drifting. Take this quiz: how many of these statements apply to you, in your current situation? The more checks you make, the greater your risk for being adrift.

  • I often have the peculiar feeling that I’m living someone else’s life, or that this isn’t my “real” life, which hasn’t yet begun.
  • I often think, “This situation can’t go on,” but then it does go on.
  • I spend a lot of time daydreaming about a completely different life as an escape from what I’m doing now.
  • I find myself getting very angry if someone challenges the values that I think I’m working toward. (E.g., working like crazy as a fifth-year associate at a law firm, and furious if someone argues that money and security aren’t important.)
  • I complain about my situation, but I don’t spend much time trying to figure out ways to make it better. In fact…
  • I fantasize that some catastrophe or upheaval will blow up my situation. I’ll break my leg or get transferred to another city.
  • I find myself having disproportionate reactions. (For example, I have a friend who wasn’t admitting to herself that she wanted to be an actor, and she decided to give it a shot after she started crying when someone started talking about acting.)
  • I feel like other people or processes are moving events forward, and I’m just passively carried along.
  • I find myself doing or getting something because the people around me are doing it or want it.
  • There is something in my life about which I used to be passionate, but now I never allow myself to indulge in it. In fact, it makes me uncomfortable even thinking about it.
  • I’ve justified certain actions on my part by assuring myself, “I might as well,” “It can’t hurt,” “This might be useful,” “This will keep my options open,” “I can always decide later,” “I can always change my mind,” “Nothing is forever,” “How bad can it be?” “How can I turn down this opportunity?”

According to the First Splendid Truth, to be happier, you need to think about feeling good, feeling bad, feeling right, in an atmosphere of growth.

Of these four elements, “feeling right” is the hardest to explain. “Feeling right” is feeling like you’re leading the life you’re meant to live; that you’re living up to your expectations for yourself; that you feel comfortable with the life you’ve chosen.

Feeling right might mean being in the right career. One reason I left law was that I was haunted by the feeling that I was … on a tangent, off-center. I can’t describe it any other way. There I was, clerking for Justice O’Connor, and I was haunted by a feeling that it was all a digression. From what, to what? That’s what I had to figure out.

Some people don’t “feel right” because they don’t have the family situation they want, or the financial situation they expected. Or they’re not spending their time on something that’s important to them. My Manhattan-raised college roommate didn’t “feel right” about living in the Midwest; she tried and tried, but her life there just didn’t feel right.

I think “feeling right” is especially susceptible to outside pressures. We drift into certain decisions because other people approve of them. Your sense of what is right for you becomes clouded by what other people think is right. You drift into medical school because your parents will be pleased. You drift into marriage because all your friends are getting married. You drift into a job because someone offers you that job. You want the respect of the people around you, or you want to avoid a fight or a bout of insecurity, so you take the path of least resistance. That’s drift.

The word “drift” has overtones of laziness or ease. Not true! Drift is often disguised by a huge amount of effort and perseverance. Just because you’re working hard is no guarantee that you’re not drifting. For me, law school was drift, and it was hard every step of the way, from the LSAT to the New York Bar exam. In the end, I’m happy I did go to law school — and that’s another tricky thing about drift. Sometimes drift does make you happy. But don’t count on it.

One of my drift-related Secrets of Adulthood is “You can choose what you do, but you can’t choose what you like to do.” And here’s another one: “Approval from the people we admire is sweet, but it’s not enough to be the foundation of a happy life.”

It comes back, as always, to a fundamental truth about happiness, and my First Commandment: Be Gretchen. (Feel free to substitute your own name.) In order to be happy, I have to know myself and build my life around my own nature.

Have you ever found yourself drifting? How did you start, how did you end it — or not?

Editor’s Note: Gretchen Rubin is the author of the New York Times bestseller The Happiness Project.  Each Wednesday is tip day on her blog.

7 Responses so far.

  1. avatar Linda Myers says:

    Can’t say it is new information, though at times the choir needs to hear the message again in the mirror.
    Thank you!

  2. avatar Joan Larsen says:

    We are 21 or 22 and out of college and have been given the title of ADULT.
    Few of us are anywhere near that.  We may be getting our first career job – and speaking for myself, we are scared sillly.  All those courses to “prepare us”, but now REAL LIFE beckons. 

    As Gretchen found, we began young — often encouraged by parents — and we were forced junior year to get our acts together and pick our degree.  And that determined our course in life.

    We don’t even know what the world offers yet.  But we need the money, and so yes! we go through the motions . . . often for years . . . sometimes hating what we are doing.  For all the reasons we all know, we stick.

    I don’t know if I say we “drift” as we are too busy raising a family and keeping our world, such as it is, together.  But somewhere – somewhere in that time — we do become adults.  Often we wish we could be kids again.

    Hopefully we can — as I did — do a mental turn of our thinking around.  Truly, you are learning along the way — sometimes wishing you weren’t when things are not turning out well.  But after you have made the same mistake twice, you hopefully can get your wits together.

    We have been stuck perhaps.  But at some point around 40 or so — just a guess — we have to sit down with our partner and with older people preferably that have been around a little longer — and talk things out.
    You are at a turning point.  You have found out – you think — what profession should have been yours.  Those I know that changed professions, went to school at night.  It is hard — but not that hard when you see a more pleasing life ahead.  You have taken a step forward.  This gives you confidence in yourself – and you notice others wishing they had your gumption (is that still a word?) 

    Believing in yourself is what it is all about.  Reaching forever out to others as this is how you grow and learn.  Move out of the box where you were pounding the walls.  Try.  Procrastination in life — procrastination when life seems to move faster and faster the older we get — is stupid.  Test the waters — make small moves.  Make bigger ones, backing up if you have to.  But you will feel good about yourself, you will be active, and “couch potato” will not be in your vocabulary.

    You are wonderful — face it — you are.  You have potential as everyone does.  Believe in that — and believe you can do it — and know that for everyone there are rough stretches in life,  but beyond that can be your particular rainbow.

    If you seek it.

    • avatar mary burdt says:

      Hi Joan – It has been a while since I have posted but my circumstances have changed dramatically since the middle of September.  My husband had colon cancer and the surgery, though extensive, seemed to be a success.  His recovery was moving along when he began to be so weak and too tired to accomplish anything (not even a daily walk, which he loved) without being exhausted.  Off to the Doctor and then the drifting began.  The cancer had returned and he was given five weeks to live.  He passed away in a hospice situation with me by his side.
      We had a blessed marriage for 52 years, and for that I am grateful but I miss him every day.  Life goes on, I know, but I am drifting through each day, not myself at all.
      Say a prayer for me and my family.   Mary

      • avatar Joan Larsen says:

        Oh Mary . . . your silence on our site has naturally disappointed me, but never ever did I get a glimpse of what you might have been going through.  My heart goes out to you.  .  . and please know I am with you in spirit.  Whenever you once again feel like talking/writing, please do.  But know for each of us there is an unknown time for grieving, for mourning, and for sometimes not knowing how we will get through the days.  . and the nights. 

        I hope it will somehow helps you to know that I care so very much and will carry you in my prayers and in my heart, dear Mary.


  3. avatar Chris Glass` says:

    Some people drift because they can’t help their circumstances. I used to teach remedial reading in high school. Not all of our parents were supportive or felt that reading was a necessary skill. A percentage of these kids ended up working in local mills or fast food where there was no chance for advancement. They didn’t have the educational skills to improve their situations. These kids shuffled through life hoping for the best but often just getting by.
    There has never been a chance for drift in my life because I have always been plugged into what I do. It was taken for granted that we would be educated and that we would learn to help ourselves. They key to not drifting for years is learning to recognize and take advantage of opportunities that will allow you to grow.

  4. avatar Belinda Joy says:

    Wow Gretchen.
    You know those articles you read that you find yourself nodding in agreement and once you make it to the very last word you sit back in your chair, take it all in and say…..Hmmmmm.  That is how I am feeling right now after reading your article.
    By definition I guess you could say I am definitely drifting. And although I am happy to now put a name on the emotions I have been feeling, I am baffled as to why someone with my personality would be “drifting?”  How can I be so centered and seemingly in control, yet so out of touch with who I am and what I truly want out of life? It just doesn’t seem possible.
    Taking the quiz was an eye opener for me. Having the knowledge and tools to make a change is the first step toward change, so thanks to you I am now on my way. The last 12 months have been such a revelation to me…..

  5. avatar D L says:

    Wow. This article is an eye-opener.

    I’m 35 and have felt like I’ve been drifting for awhile. I’m always asking myself: what is my purpose in life? What do I want to do? I’m currently working full-time at a big company in NYC but honestly, don’t feel any real connection to it. I sometimes muse, what do I want to be when I grow up? I’ve had that question ever since junior high.

    I have always been a people pleaser. I did what my parents asked and tried not to cause conflict. Same with school (so much so that I was named “Teacher’s Pet” in 3rd grade). I would do anything for a friend, mostly b/c I wanted to be accepted and hated for anyone to be mad at me. Even if a friend did me wrong, I never said a word b/c I didn’t want them to not like me.

    When I was in high school, I had a 3-year relationship with a mentally, emotionally and (later) physically abusive guy. My self-esteem was eroded and I had no friends. In order to keep the peace (as this jerk had a habit of yelling at and demeaning me whenever I voiced an opinion), I did as he wanted. He decided computers were the wave of the future so I was to be a computer programmer, even though I had no interest. He decided how I should look, what I ate, what I did, where I went, etc. It was a horrible time for me. And while I did eventually break up with him, the mental and emotional scars stayed with me for a long time. I trace this as part of my “drifting” problem.

    While I intellectually understand that I tend to do what others expect and try very hard to not do that, I still run into problems. As I mentioned above, I’m still uncertain as to my role in work and in life. I am married for almost 3 years now to a wonderful man who loves everything about me, including my quirks. But I find myself becoming restless, not with him but with myself. In past relationships, I noticed this restlessness and that’s what sabotaged the relationship. In the past, I looked to others to fulfill me. Now I realize that I need to fulfill myself. I just wish I knew how…