This weekend, I’d like you to try something: get your kids (or borrow one if you don’t have your own) and get a big sheet of paper (don’t worry, I’m not going to ask you to craft!) No, what I’d like you to do is ask this child to list all the things they wish they could do.
Maybe they want to ride a bike without wheels? Maybe they’ve got a friend who is an ACE drawer and they want to draw that well too. Maybe they just really, really want to be a ninja-firefighter-spy who kills ALL THE BADDIES (I mean, who wouldn’t?!)
Write it all down.
Then tell them that they are a bit crap for not already knowing how to do these things. You want them to feel inadequate and uncomfortable, to have the sense that they really SHOULD have figured those things out by now. Once they are suitably anxious, start to encourage them that if they can learn to do, and be, all these things then everything will be OK – they will be happier, have more fun, and PEOPLE WILL LIKE THEM MORE.
That would be a horrible thing to do to a child.
And yet, this is exactly what we do to ourselves constantly.
Oh, look at that beautiful kitchen on Pinterest, I wish I knew how to decorate like that. Think of all the dinner parties we could have, and how much all the kinder mums would love to come to our place… if only my kitchen looked like that. Oh, just think of all the things I could cook, and all the baking I could do. My life would be so much easier (ie. better) if only I had that kitchen.”
Oh, look at that woman and her amazing wardrobe. If only I could afford to buy all those things. If only I could loose a few kg, then I’d look as amazing as her. If only, if only, if only…”
Oh, if only I was a better mother. More patient and calm, my kids would be happier, and our house would be a haven and… if only.
We couch this desire for self-improvement in terms of virtuous notions – a better mother, a better friend, a better business-woman, a better lover, a better home. We use language that makes us feel like it’s a very reasonable and sensible and gosh, even maybe a little bit wise, all this striving.
But I’m calling bullshit.
Because all the pursuit of betterness actually does is feed discontent. When we relentlessly pursue self-improvement, we just see everything that we think we are not. We see the things we don’t have, the things we aren’t and perhaps can’t, be. We think that the key to life is in the “if only’s…” and we unconsciously decide that our life is just…not.
And to that, I also say H.E.L.L. N.O.
A discontented life is the worst kind of life. You will never be enough. The pursuit of more, even ‘virtuous more’ can never truly be satiated. No matter how much we “improve”, if we keep striving we will never reach a point of happiness – there will always be “work” left undone.
Our wonky bits are human. But we are afraid of them. We are afraid that our imperfections will cause us to be judged, and judged wanting; when the exact opposite is true; our imperfections are what bring us together.
They are what enable us connect with each other beyond the superficial. They teach us empathy and patience. They teach us to be kind and understanding. When we deny and hate these parts of ourselves, then we give ourselves over to fear.
But what would happen if we stopped trying to be better? Would that make us worse, somehow? Would that turn us in slovenly, selfish people? Or would we just do things that make us happy, things that we enjoy, that bring some brightness into the world?
What if we stopped striving, and tried accepting instead? Accepting our own flaws, and the flaws of those around us.
Choosing contentment doesn’t mean never striving for anything in your life, it means turning your focus away from what you think will bring you joy, happiness, or some other positive feeling and appreciating your life as it is. It means bravely owning your flaws, accepting your limitations and believing that you still have something to offer.
Don’t live a life striving to be better, live a brave life instead.
Some things to remember, in the pursuit of happiness…
1. Social media is 1mm deep.
What you see on social media is what people want you to see, nothing more and nothing less. No matter how authentically someone shares their life, they are the curator of it.
2. The practice of gratitude is transformational. If you find yourself fixated on self-improvement try keeping a gratitude journal. Having done this as a family I’ve learnt the gratitude is actually hard for adults – kids have an ice cream and feel grateful, we eat an ice cream and feel guilty. We need to look closely at our lives and find the small, ordinary moments for which our lives are so much richer – and be grateful for them.
3. Know that the desire for betterness will come again. After all, if we’re not striving to improve, well, that’s something we should really work on – don’t you think? Watch out for it’s subtle call and when it comes, don’t give fear the power to determine how you live.