How Structure Helps us Live Better Lives

Grief was orderly and the paths to healing were predictable and well-resourced. In a climate like that, everyone’s mental health was assured.

How Structure Helps us Live Better Lives

All over the world I meet people who do better with healthy doses of rules, routines, and expectations. In a word, government. We all need it, in one form or another. American anti-government zealots are usually keen to substitute some sort of religious control for democratic control. Most revolutionaries have some vague notion of a new regime with which they will replace the old regime. Even if we prefer to think of ourselves as completely autonomous beings, lead actors in our own movies, we all do better with order. We are safer and more prosperous and we live longer under systems of good government that place some restrictions on individual freedoms, whether they be speed limits or a child’s access to cigarettes. We perform better when we stick to schedules, when we are conscious of other’s expectations of us,  and when our actions are consistently subject to natural consequences. 

Rules, routines, and expectations make our lives predictable and secure. That is why children need bedtimes and chartered accountants need job security if both are to weather personal challenges. That is why students do better with clearly defined deadlines and healthy expectations from parents that they pass their exams. That is why we live longer when someone needs us to get out of bed in the morning. Without these structures, people will go to incredible lengths to make their lives predictable. They will check themselves into detox. They will marry the first suitable mate that comes along. Or they will do something so incredibly stupid that lands them in jail. 

Our need for structure increases in times of crisis. A colleague of mine went to a local high school the day after a student committed suicide. What she found were students in the halls wailing, overwhelmed by grief. Everyone, it seemed, had been the boy’s best friend. Grief was like a virus infecting the whole student population. That happens when people (of any age) are overwhelmed by new emotions and left to cope on their own. On another occasion, my colleague visited a different school after a boy died of injuries from an accident on an all-terrain vehicle. When she entered the school, the halls were clear. The counselor was directed to the library which had been reserved as a quiet space for children to come and talk with an adult if the death of their classmate was troubling them. Grief was orderly and the paths to healing were predictable and well-resourced. In a climate like that, everyone’s mental health was assured.

That last example is the way most communities grieve. In the Jewish faith, people sit Shiva for seven days while family and friends drop in to offer condolences. After seven days, it is expected that the one grieving returns to her normal life, heavy in spirit, but with the expectation that it is time to begin to move on. Wakes and funerals do the same thing. They provide structures for us to manage grief at a time when we are understandably overwhelmed.

Structure can also give rise to great creativity. It is as if we must learn to colour inside the lines first before we can break the rules. Not all of us, but a surprising number of us, benefit from a period of conformity before testing the limits of convention. While I was travelling through France last summer, I went to the Musée d'Orsay and heard stories about impressionists like Monet, Matisse, and Picasso that lend credibility to this theory of conformity before creativity. All three artists were at one point or another kicked out of the Parisian art establishments of their day. Their paintings were judged inferior by those who thought they knew best. What is interesting, however, is that each of these artists began as an aspiring inside-the-lines master before shocking the world with new ways of seeing. These days, dotcom entrepreneurs are some of the most unconventional among us. They are often university drop outs. They do fine without structure, although all of them were hyper-intelligent and capable individuals with firm grasps of the principles of their disciplines. They master the existing digital world before breaking out of their own. Individualism is almost always the prerogative of those who have mastered conformity.

A former client of mine, Alayna, showed me the power and simplicity of structure during chaos. Juggling a part-time job and a young child while completing her Masters degree, it was a wonder she had not burned out earlier. When we met, she was frazzled, her hands twitching from the river of caffeine she ingested every day to keep going. Amid tears she told me she was ready to give up. There were too many demands on her time. It was obvious something had to change. 

While Alayna was convinced she should do less, I suggested she continue to do the same amount (she was, after all, highly motivated) but put in place routines to make her days easier and better planned. I could see that she was losing a lot of time each day figuring out what to do next. Before she threw away her job, her degree, or her child, we discussed building into her day a fifteen-minute planning period, something that she recalled doing in her early twenties when first at university. Back then, Alayna would amble into her favorite coffee shop on the way to school and think about her day. She always enjoyed those few minutes of reflection. It proved to be an easy fix to have Alayna avoid the drive thru after dropping her daughter at daycare on the way to work. Instead, she would park her car and walk inside for her first coffee. She needed just a few minutes to calm and consider everything she had to get done.

In Alayna’s case, the structure appears to be self-imposed but that would be a shallow read of a much more complex situation. Alayna’s need for structure, and the decision to impose more structure on her day, worked because her school, her workplace, and her child already placed expectations on Alayna. All she was doing was juggling the pieces. I worry much less about people like Alayna with external demands on them than about people with very little or no structure at all. A week or two of vacation is one thing. A post-retirement hangover that lasts months because no one expects the retiree to get off the couch is quite different. Resilient people live lives full of expectations from others, even though many of those expectations are self-imposed.

We actually do better when we surround ourselves with environments that hold us accountable. Good consequences, like healthy amounts of structure, and being made to eat our dinners, make our lives more predictable. It also makes us far more capable of weathering a future crisis.
 

Note: Michael Ungar, Ph.D., is a Family Therapist and Canada Research Chair in Child, Family and Community Resilience at Dalhousie University. His latest best-selling book is Change Your World: The Science of Resilience and the True Path to Success. More about Dr. Ungar: www.michaelungar.com