“Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity! I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand; instead of a million count half a dozen, and keep your accounts on your thumb nail… Superfluous wealth can buy superfluities only. Money is not required to buy one necessary of the soul.” - Walden, by Henry David Thoreau, 1845
Amid the hardship and tragedy of the global pandemic, there are valuable lessons to be learned. We are housebound, we are home schooling, we are working from home, we are all to some degree (as Thoreau recommended) “living deliberately” and “dealing only with the essential facts of life.” Family, friends, neighbours, helping others and being helped, food, shelter and security have now become the most important parts of living, while the past importance of conspicuous consumption and living large, at least for a time, fade away.
The studies have been done. The research is clear: beyond the basic needs of food and shelter, more stuff, more experiences or more “living large” will not bring happiness, just an unending search for more. And then, more again, without end.
Happiness, satisfaction, and fulfillment are experienced through having a purpose in life, (a purpose larger than yourself!) and to some degree fulfilling that purpose. The unrestrained “pursuit of happiness” is a monstrous and cruel misconception when tied directly to nothing more than unlimited consumption and unlimited material wealth. Happiness is not something achieved with big houses, big trucks, or world travel, and trying to achieve it that way is literally making our planet uninhabitable while systematically making most everybody miserable and unhappy.
Striving for greatness, going for the top, aiming to be the best, may have its place when trying to achieve a specific goal, but not as a method of proving your worth as a human being or achieving a sense of well-being and satisfaction.
The goal of excellence is a value imposed from without. The elite “top notch, gotta be the best, gotta be the greatest” ethic may actually, in practice, do more harm than good. That’s because, generally, failure is much more likely than success in most everything we do, especially if the goal is extreme success.
So learning how to fail well is important. It’s going to happen a lot. “Failing well” does not mean weathering the storm, dusting your self off, and going boldly on to achieve amazing new levels of greatness. No, failing well means accepting failure as it is, as an inevitable and important part of a rich and valuable life. Nothing special, it’s just what happens. It’s just part of who I am, who we all are, and failing is how we acquire our most valuable lessons and learning.
Some 80% of all new business ventures fail, for instance. Those who eventually succeed in business are those who know how to fail well, learn what they can from the failure, and move on, realizing, hopefully, that a small business might very well provide a higher degree of satisfaction, a reasonable income with lower stress, than a large one.
Living life expecting a certain amount of failure and being ready to accept and embrace it has many positive side affects: reduced stress, reduced self-abuse, your goals shift to something more doable, less harmful, something kinder to yourself and others.
It’s about achieving wellness, not necessarily happiness. Wisdom is more about “valuing the ordinary”, embracing mediocrity, than about admiring and striving for greatness. Less about achieving happiness and more about achieving well being by aiming for “a good enough life.”
Dump the bucket list. What are we trying to prove, and to whom? Eight billion people competing to become the greatest, biggest, fastest, richest, most astonishing and remarkable and most “successful” are not only destroying the natural systems that keep us all alive, but also destroying our personal wellness while we ignore those closest to us, and ignore and neglect our own backyards.
Perhaps notching things down a bit will be a refreshing change for everyone and everything on our fragile little planet.
Don Pettit is a community columnist living in Dawson Creek and Executive Director of the Peace Energy Cooperative.