One of my hobbies is re-examining common sayings - how and why we say them, what effect they have on us, and how often they actually ring true. It is admittedly an odd hobby but it does fit in with my goal of improving thinking and decision making. After all, what we say is a result of what we think and our words affect both how we feel and how others feel about us.
One proverb that has always intrigued me is, “All good things must come to an end.”
What’s the point?
This one is fascinating because while most common sayings are hopeful and make us feel good, this one is different. It sounds depressing and strikes a melancholy tone. It can seem as if we are saying, “What’s the point of doing something good if it’s going to end anyway?” It’s a bit nihilistic.
How saying or hearing “all good things must come to an end” makes us feel usually depends on who says it and when. Typically we say it when:
a) something good has ended (like a school play or a bull market, for example), or
b) we are in the midst of something good that we anticipate will end at some point (a job or a relationship).
It also depends on if we are saying it to ourselves or hearing it from someone else.
When another person says it to us, it is usually after the fact and most often out of charity. They are trying to help us reduce our feelings of sadness and loss. It also allows us to not feel guilty about causing the good thing’s demise (even if we are at fault). “It was going to happen anyway because all good things must come to an end.”
When we say it to ourselves it can serve the same purpose, except when the thought appears while the good situation still exists. During my years as a corporate professional I had landed a job with a small local company that turned out to be a fantastic fit for me and a great place to work. I recall thinking, “This is a great situation! I will never have a job or an employer as good as this. Too bad it won’t last forever.”
On the one hand, the knowledge that it was not permanent helped me appreciate what I had. On the other hand, it kept me from feeling as happy about it as I could or should have. It suppressed my joy.
In this way the saying seems to serve as part of our emotional immune system, whereby our brain brings us back to an emotional equilibrium when we feel too high or too low.
Should you or shouldn’t you?
What’s the bottom line? Is this a saying you should keep in your repertoire? Yes and no.
First of all, unlike many common sayings, it is basically true because almost everything will come to an end eventually - good or bad.
Saying it to someone else after they have suffered a loss can be a kind gesture and helpful to them. However, it may also come across as cold. For example, a friend whose promising romantic relationship just ended may not appreciate you saying, “Oh well - all good things must come to an end.”
Saying it or thinking it to ourselves is another matter because it affects our mindset. Say it with an attitude of acceptance and appreciation, not fear or despair. Focusing too much on the end keeps you from enjoying the present.
If I were in charge of improving this common saying I would change it to, “All good things must come to an end so in a world of constant change, pin your happiness not on one event or situation, but on moving in the right direction - toward your priorities, goals and values.”
Hmmm. Not quite as catchy but I like it.
My employment with the great company did eventually come to an end when the business was sold to a large out-of-state company. But in hindsight it was just one stone along a path that has led me (so far) to where I am today. I can say with near certainty that I am more fulfilled now than I would have been if the job had remained “a good thing” and I had never left.
Think well and be well!
- Steve Haffner
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