The science of happiness
The fast-evolving field of neuroscience tackles one of humanity's most enduring questions - what is "happiness"?
The other day, my son invented a new superhero. "His name is Average Man," he told me. "He suffices."
I loved the idea of Average Man, but he'd never catch on. Superheroes are aspirational, and we're not supposed to be good enough. Our culture values high achievement in every area of our lives. We want brilliant careers, accomplished children, perfect bodies, and financial prosperity. It is almost shameful to be satisfied with sufficing. "Mediocre" is a dirty word.
I grew up surrounded by high achievers, and never questioned the importance of being extraordinary. I was accelerated in school, excelled at writing, then won a full academic scholarship to high school. I was all set to be a star.
But then I buckled under the pressure. I achieved very ordinary marks in my HSC, and went on to a career as a social worker. Looking back, I believe I deliberately rejected the culture of high achievement. I had known so many highly successful people who were deeply dissatisfied, and I just didn't want that for myself.
Which is why this week I read with tremendous interest the article by Krista O'Reilly Davi-Digui, 'What If I Want A Mediocre Life?'
The world is such a noisy place. Loud, haranguing voices lecturing me to hustle, to improve, build, strive, yearn, acquire, compete, and grasp for more. For bigger and better. Sacrifice sleep for productivity. Strive for excellence. Go big or go home. Have a huge impact in the world. Make your life count.
But what if I just don't have it in me? What if all the striving for excellence leaves me sad, worn out, depleted? Drained of joy. Am I simply not enough?
I have asked myself those questions many times. Is there anything wrong with being average? And how do I balance this against my instinct to succeed?
My career has been a swing between extremes. When I finally embraced writing in my 40s, I wanted to make up for lost time. I worked extremely hard to establish myself in the industry, leaning in, as Sheryl Sandberg would say. I wrote endless blog posts and columns, published two books in two years, and spent countless hours building my profile on social media. I tasted success, and I enjoyed it.
But life just went on. I met my goals – I was an author and writing for publications I adored – but I never felt as though I had "made it". I still don't. There is so much more I could do with my career: write for international publications, publish more books, go on the speakers' circuit, write a screenplay and be nominated for an Oscar. Win an Oscar. And then...?
Or I could just enjoy what I'm doing, and be happy.
And so that's what I have tried to do. Maybe it's because I've lost a sister, and want to honour her by living with joy. Maybe I value my children and loved ones, and the time I spend with them. Maybe I value myself, and the time I spend alone.
Or maybe I'm just too lazy to do the work.
Still, I'm mostly content, and high achievers are rarely content. Contentment, after all, is antithetical to drive. High achievers don't win awards, or invent new technologies, or sell a business, and then sit back and congratulate themselves and relax. They achieve one goal, and then immediately reach for a new one, setting the bar higher and higher each time. They might feel proud of their accomplishments, but are constantly looking forward, and are rarely, if ever, satisfied.
It's a challenge. The voices in my head tell me to do more, achieve more. Krista wrote, "What if I never build an orphanage in Africa?" and realise I wrestle with the same question. What if I never write a bestseller? What if I'm never a famous writer? How do I reconcile being 'good enough' with all the achievement around me?
I resolve these questions by relishing the small details of my life: the way my daughter's face looks in the morning, the feel of my head on my pillows as I read a book every night, the laughter at Friday night dinners with my parents, the messages from my friends on my phone. I don't want to sacrifice any of these moments for achievement.
I hover in between mediocrity and success, and it's a comfortable place to be. And I realise that maybe, my son was onto something after all. Average Man – or, in this case, Average Woman – may be just the superhero we need.