December 10, 2021
I’ve been wondering lately about the difference between being spontaneous and being impulsive.
I used to be very spontaneous, especially in my 20s. I’d make choices on the fly. I’d do things I thought would be fun and exciting. I would rationalize my spontaneity by saying I was “living life to the fullest,” chasing experiences so memorable that, in my 80s, I’d have plenty of great tales to share with whoever would listen.
That was my rubric for choice-making: to choose what would make for the best stories when I looked back from my death bed.
We don’t generally consider spontaneity a bad thing. Spontaneity yields exciting moments, moments in which we abandon norms of behavior, throw off cultural expectations, and do what makes us feel alive.
Norms are stifling. Culture can be constraining. Spontaneity reminds us that we’re in control.
But now, as the older version of me sits here writing this, I’m not sure all that spontaneity has given me the memories I’d hoped for. My spontaneous life, as I look back at it, doesn’t seem all that exciting. It reads more like a huge mess, one odd choice after another, a series of arbitrary moments that have really led nowhere.
To top it off, some of those choices led to situations I wish I could forget.
More meaningful are those decisions I made carefully, like experiences regarding my professional life. My decision to abandon a legal career, after investing time and energy into law school, was not made spontaneously. It was made over a period of about two or three years and involved a lot of information-gathering by way of working as a legal practitioner. That thoughtful, careful, not-taken-so-lightly decision is one I’m incredibly proud of. All the memories I carry with me regarding that choice fill me with confidence.
Meanwhile, every spontaneous road trip I took with friends, while exciting back then, today seems like a waste of gas. Did I have to drive from Austin to San Antonio in the middle of the night with a guy I’d just met just to see the sun rise over the Alamo? I thought so. Was it a memory I cherish? Not really. Did it enrich my life or character in any way? No.
But it did make me feel better in the moment. Back then, I was mired in deep depression. Spontaneity was a defibrillator, injecting me with enough excitement to make my life worth fighting for.
As it happens, impulsivity, like spontaneity, could be an emotional management tool as well.
This past week, I responded to a journalist’s inquiry about why people engage in impulse shopping – a question that business clients have also asked me over the years. In doing my research, I came across a research paper that reported a relationship between negative emotions and heightened impulsivity. In the researchers’ own words, “Although these relationships were weak, they nevertheless added to evidence from earlier studies which have suggested that the experience of emotional distress drives people to treat themselves to immediate pleasures, such as indulgent foods over healthy options, as a means of regulating one’s mood.”
I mean, we’ve all kind of known retail therapy is a thing. But now we have some scientific evidence.
Mood regulation, or what I call “emotional management,” can lead us to make decisions that feel good in the moment but that may not actually be good over the long term. Loneliness, for example, feels terrible. So does rejection by a loved one or abandonment by a friend. A manager who doesn’t value your work can make you feel crappy. Betrayal by a partner can crush you.
Spontaneity... impulsivity... may feel like it’s saving you. It’s why we splurge on jewelry when our partner hurts our feelings, or why we quit our jobs without notice when our boss criticizes us (again).
It’s why we have affairs.
Impulsive decisions can make us feel alive. They can even make life feel like it’s worth living. If you’re miserable, who can fault you for wanting an injection of positivity and excitement to keep you going?
All I’m saying is that if you're regularly compelled to give into spontaneity, maybe think twice about it. If you need to act impulsively to feel better, or if spontaneity is your modus operandi, it might be worth paying attention to what’s truly making you feel badly - and deal with that head-on. In a way, impulsivity, or spontaneity (if you see these two as interchangeable), can serve as a signal that you’ve got some major life decisions to make, decisions that require thoughtful, slow thinking. Those decisions may deserve more of your energy than you’re giving them, and your impulsive choices may be taking more of your energy than they deserve.
My journey out of depression didn’t start with therapy (though I threw myself into it). It started when I built rigid routines for myself that gave my life certainty – which gave me space to deal with what was really going on with me. By abandoning spontaneity, I gave myself a genuine shot at feeling good over the long run.
Years later, here I am. Not depressed. Doing a lot of great stuff. And building the kind of memories that will really count when I’m on my deathbed.
Given how hard life can be, having a somewhat predictable life isn’t all that bad.
That is all.