“I am not really trying to live a perfect life,” you might say. “I don’t have to be a multi-millionaire or an award-winning actress or live on my own island.” So maybe you are not an extreme perfectionist, but you may be surprised to learn that perfectionism comes in many flavors. Check the questions below, inspired by Tal Ben-Shahar's book "The Pursuit of Perfect", to see if you are actually pursuing a “perfect” life, rather than a “happy” life.
1. Do you believe that your path toward a goal should be direct, smooth and free of obstacles and get frustrated when it isn’t?
2. Do you believe that a happy life is composed of a stream of positive emotions and don’t want to experience anger, disappointment, sadness or fear?
3. Do you always strive toward the next goal, but no matter what you have achieved, it doesn’t seem to be enough and you don’t feel successful?
4. Are you being hard on yourself and others? Have you noticed that you get defensive when others criticize you?
If your answer is “yes” to any of these questions, you may be pursuing a “perfect” life. Ironically, while we think that a “perfect” life will bring us success and fulfillment, it is actually keeping us from living a happy life.
I have been guilty of all of these beliefs at some point. I used to think that life was a straight line that continues to slope upward and whenever a setback occurred, I would think that this was just one outlier! After this stumbling block, if I tried hard enough and did everything “right”, life would invariably finally begin to move up again in a straight line. Of course, that’s not how life works. Maybe it’s movies and fairy tales that give us the illusion that this is the way things are “supposed to” look, but as many of us have experienced, life is actually a journey with ups and downs and spirals.
And each of the “detours” is a natural part of life and a necessary experience on the way to success. Without failure and mistakes, we don’t learn and grow. What would shift if we actually saw getting laid off, falling sick or arguing with a friend as part of a full, fulfilling and happy life?
Similarly, happy people are not always full of positive emotions, but they also let themselves experience painful feelings. When we block painful emotions, we keep ourselves from feeling, and in the process also block pleasurable ones. Furthermore, painful emotions expand and intensify when they don’t get released and when they finally break through, they overwhelm us. In order to be happy, we need to allow ourselves to experience the full range of human emotions.
Not taking pleasure in our accomplishments is another way we keep ourselves unhappy. If we are constantly in a rat race, always pursuing the next goal, we don’t take time to experience gratitude and don't acknowledge ourselves for each accomplishment. Also, as I explained in How To Set Goals To Make You Happy, it is the habit of really enjoying each step of the journey, rather than the achievement of the goal that brings us the happiness we are looking for.
Finally, being hard on ourselves and others comes from the belief that it is possible and necessary to go through life without any errors. But while nobody likes to make mistakes, it is of course part of life. Trying to lead a life where everything goes smoothly and not accepting failures as healthy and necessary, brings extra stress and unhappiness. If we are being hard on ourselves, chances are that we are hard on others as well. If we easily find fault with ourselves and others, it’s easy to become defensive when others criticize us. The kinder and more compassionate we become toward ourselves, the more kindness and compassion we can show toward others and the happier we feel.
So, it's your choice: Do you want to live a perfect life or a happy life? It’s ironic: Many of us strive for perfection, because we are under the false belief that reaching the perfect life will actually make us happy. But in reality, trying to be perfect is what keeps us from finding the joy we are looking for!
Are you willing to live an “imperfect” life, knowing that it would make you happier?