Q: I got dumped four months ago, and I’m still not sure what happened. All of my boyfriend’s explanations seemed vague, and the breakup really came out of nowhere. I don’t want to contact him. How do I sort this out so I can move on?—Desperately Seeking Closure
A: Science has yet to figure out a number of life’s mysteries—questions like, “What came before the big bang?” “Why is there more matter than antimatter?” and “If we’re so advanced, what’s with short-sleeved leather jackets?”
Freak breakups—unexpected, inexplicable endings to relationships—are really tough because our minds don’t do well with unfinished business. It ends up bugging us to get “closure”—and by “bugging,” I mean like some maniacal game show host in hell, shouting at us for all eternity, “Answer the question! Answer the question!”
This psychological spin cycle we go into is called “the Zeigarnik effect,” after Russian psychologist and psychiatrist Bluma Zeigarnik. In the 1920s, Zeigarnik observed that waiters at a busy Vienna restaurant were pretty remarkable at remembering food orders they had taken but had yet to deliver. However, once they’d brought the food to the patrons, they had little memory of what the orders were.
Zeigarnik’s research (and subsequent modern research) suggests that the mind remains in a “state of tension” until we complete whatever we’ve left incomplete—finishing the task we’ve started or finally answering some nagging question.
This might seem like bad news for you, considering the mystery you’ve got on your hands. However, you can make use of psychologist Daniel Kahneman’s research. He explains that our brains are “expensive” to run; basically, it takes a ton of energy to keep the lights on up there. So our mind is programmed to take mental shortcuts whenever it can—believing stuff that has even a veneer of plausibility.
As for how this plays out, essentially, your mind assumes that you’re smart—that you don’t believe things for no reason. The upshot of this for you is that you can probably just decide on a story—your best guess for why your now-ex-boyfriend bolted—and write yourself an ending that gets you off the mental hamster wheel.
Should those old intrusive thoughts drop by for a visit, review the ending you’ve written, and then distract yourself until they go away—like by reciting the ABCs backwards.
Q: I’m a woman in my early 40s, married for 12 years. I gave up my career as a dancer to be a mom. I can afford not to work, as my husband makes great money. However, my kids are now 12 and 13 and don’t need me like they did when they were little. I feel as if I don’t have any purpose in my life, and it’s getting me down. I can’t go back to dancing now. What do I do?—At Loose Ends
A: Sure, your kids still need you, but mainly to drive them places.
In fact, in these modern times, it can feel like much of your job as a mother could be done by a stern-voiced Uber driver. This is a problem. As social psychologist Todd Kashdan explains, “Years of research on the psychology of well-being have demonstrated that often human beings are happiest when they are engaged in” activities that bring meaning to their lives.
As I explain in Good Manners for Nice People Who Sometimes Say F*ck, living meaningfully means being bigger than just yourself. It means making a difference—making the world a better place because you were here. You do that by, for example, easing people’s suffering—and you don’t have to be a hospice nurse to do that. You can do as my wonderfully cranky Venice neighbor @MrsAbbotKinney does as an adult literacy volunteer—teach people how to read. I always get a little misty-eyed when I see her tweets about taking one of the people she’s tutored to apply for their first library card.
Because doing kind acts for others appears to boost general life satisfaction, doing volunteer work should lead you to feel more fulfilled. This is especially important in a world where daily hardships involve things like struggling to remember your new PIN to get milk delivered from the online supermarket—as opposed to trekking through a snowstorm to the freezing-cold barn.