A Good Life is a Flawed Life
February 15, 2012
— Flaws, Sydney Morning Herald
The good life is a flawed life, writes Sarah Berry. From the Sydney Morning Herald
Happiness is not about being shiny and sparkly and new 100 per cent of the time. Although, you’d be forgiven for thinking it is.
That’s the view of Brene Brown, author of The Gifts of Imperfection who believes that we have come to equate happiness with perfection.
“Each day we face a barrage of images and messages from society and the media telling us who, what, and how we should be,” she says. “We are led to believe that if we could only look perfect and lead perfect lives, we’d no longer feel inadequate.”
The reality is that happiness isn’t a utopian destination where we are ‘happy’ the whole time. In fact, the experts say that authentic happiness starts with changing this mindset and reassessing our expectations of what happiness means.
Dr Timothy Sharp from The Happiness Institute says that positive emotions like joy, pride, satisfaction and contentment are fleeting, just like any other emotion.
“Leading a good life, [of which] positive emotions are just one part, is a broader definition of happiness,” he says.
“One that is deeper and more lasting.”
This version of happiness includes engaging in life, having a sense of purpose and achieving meaningful goals, says Sharp. With this in mind, he says it’s important to take the time to ask yourself honestly if you are happy.
“There’s nothing wrong with seeking positive emotions and having fun. Play is very important. But, you need to get the balance right. Working hard to achieve something worthwhile often involves blood, sweat and tears along the way.”
‘Hold your goals lightly’
Dr Anthony Grant, director of coaching psychology at Sydney University and author of 8 Steps to Happiness: An Everyday Handbook, also emphasises the importance of finding a happy medium.
“Sometimes we do need to defer happiness to achieve our goals … a broader view of a happy life is [one that is] rich and full and meaningful,” he says.
“Which, in the greater scheme, can include times of feeling down and sad and disconnected.”
The key is to keep checking in with your wellbeing along the way. Otherwise you risk making your happiness conditional on hypotheticals.
“Hold your goals lightly,” Grant says. “Putting effort into goals is good…[but] focus on what is making the journey meaningful for you and be open and honest with yourself about that.”
A part of this is having ownership of your choices, he says.
“People often become disillusioned and feel empty if they are pursuing goals that aren’t theirs.”
Accentuate the positive
Author of blog The Happiness Project, Gretchen Rubin, writes that at the top of her list, of individual commandments for a happy life, is “Being Gretchen.” This means accepting that she will never be one to visit a jazz club at midnight or be known for her “chic” fashion, even if she wishes she were.
“It’s possible – in fact quite easy – to construct a life quite unrelated to our nature,” she says. “[But] we’re a lot happier when we don’t expect ourselves to change and accept what we aren’t and cannot be and love everything.”
It is from the launchpad of acceptance that we can start working with what we’ve got and stop lamenting what we don’t. Which according to the Making Australia Happy project is one of the keys to feeling fulfilled. “Understanding character strengths is about understanding what it is that makes us thrive as individuals. The simple logic is that we are at our best and happiest when we are exercising our strengths.”
This involves taking the time to reflect on what your strengths are, what brings you joy and acknowledging when you’ve slipped into a rut.
“Get clear on what your values are,” says Grant. “Look at what you’re doing on a daily basis and how that aligns with those values.
“We all get caught in cycles of behaviour that are destructive. We’re designed to operate in auto-mode, so we easily fall into patterns without recognising we’ve fallen into them.”
Red flags include prolonged periods of sleeplessness, poor nutrition or getting easily upset by work, your partner or children.
“Stop, sit down and work out what your trigger points are so that you can work out the cycle of behaviour,” he says.
The upside is that, with awareness, we can use auto-mode to our advantage by creating positive patterns. “The little things, our daily choices make a big difference and are related to long-term change.”
Good daily choices include making time for positive relationships and not underestimating the connection between a happy body and a happy mind.
“Exercise, eating well and meditation are all basic things that help,” says Sharp.
“Our peer group is also a powerful influence. We are three to four times more likely to be overweight and unhappy if we associate with those people [who are].”
“And foster gratitude. We all have problems [but, it’s about] focusing on what we have rather than what we don’t.”
Which comes back to letting go of expectations of what happiness should be so that we can chart our own path towards a happy life and enjoy the ride that takes us there.
“Sometimes we don’t achieve the exact vision,” says Grant. “But, the important thing is to have an idea of where you’re headed. You can never get ‘west’ but you can head west. The point is that it gives you direction.”