"You have to write it down," he says. "You have to, minimally, once or twice a week, take time for mindful meditation or contemplation or prayer where you're in a state of mindful inquiry. What's important in my life? What do I value? What's the pain I'm going to experience if I don't do what I dream about in three, five, 10 years? And then what's the pleasure if I do it?"
All this isn't to say you shouldn't revel in the richness — and chaos — of your current life.
"Mindfulness is when you can be in the middle of something chaotic and shift your awareness so you're able to hold all of it without feeling anxiety," says Kaiser Greenland. "You recognize your mind is racing or your heart is racing or you're panicking about money. But you bring those feelings into awareness and just sit with them for a while."
Experiencing your emotions — good and bad — as they happen can be incredibly calming and empowering, she says. "You recognize the emotion, but you don't take it and run with it: 'Oh my god, my kids will never go to college; I'm going to lose my house; I don't know what's going to happen next month.'"
Instead, you recognize your triggers. And those can inspire you to craft a backup plan that's both realistic and worthy of your talents.
"There's a difference between wanting something more fulfilling and just wanting something better," says Alexander. "If you're always wanting something better, you have to deal with your issues of dissatisfaction and internal emptiness — always searching for that perfect mate or perfect job. You want to reach for that next aspiration because you desire a more compelling, challenging, fulfilling relationship, role, occupation. Not because of lust or greed or anger."
The right change
Some key questions, Alexander says, can help you gut-check your ambitions.
"Is this going to make a difference in your life? How will this make a difference in the world? And is this going to bring you satisfaction and fulfillment and give you the sense that you pushed yourself and played at your creative edge?"
In our family, the layoff did end up being a gift. My husband landed a job he enjoys and spends less time commuting to. Our late-night discussions brought a number of tangential topics into focus — living within our means, better dividing kid-raising duties, not allowing our identities to be so closely tied to our careers.
And it made us better backup planners.
"The people I see who are really happy are the people who have a compelling vision in their lives that's not the accumulation of more stuff or more money," says Alexander, "but a desire to do good in the world and create something that makes a difference."
Backup-planning your relationships
Online dating has made it easier than ever to backup-plan your way through the singles scene. Sure, she's cute and smart. But eight other women checked out my profile this week. Is she the cutest and smartest?
"I know people who are going on four to six coffee dates a week," thanks to online matchmaking, says Ronald Alexander, author of "Wise Mind, Open Mind: Finding Purpose and Meaning in Times of Crisis, Loss and Change" (New Harbinger Publications). "I tell people, 'Before you go on that sixth date, maybe you want to write down the three most important values you're looking for in a relationship.'"
If you identify — and then, eureka! locate them — it may be easier to block the temptation to go down every possible dating path you're offered.
"What are the core values I need in a partner, what is the core connection I want to experience when I'm with someone and what are the three most compelling questions I want to ask someone and that I want to be asked?" Alexander suggests. "There's so much volume available that you literally need to be able to narrow it down."
As for those three compelling questions, he's a fan of: "What motivates you? What inspires you? And where do you get support in your life?"
"And wait to see how many questions they ask you," he says. "That's a real telling point early on."