Monday, September 29, 2014

the season of contentment

A recent study done by a friend undertaking demographic research for her Masters degree, uncovered that the unhappiest group of people by far are those in my own age group.  How can this be? We are the smart, supposedly emotionally aware group who are homeowners, parents, partners, socially successful - all the good things right?  
Well it would seem that we're almost the most unhappy because of this huge pressure  on us to live in the moment these days (carpe diem!) and yet to also be constantly looking for improvement. We live in a culture that demands us to be driven, ambitious and constantly looking for the next big thing, the next big adventure or the next step on our career ladder/home ownership plan/social scale.  We want more stuff, more experiences, more fulfilling careers and personal relationships, more success. More. More. More. 
I'm all for ambition and I'm also all for seeking, and keeping,  that elusive happiness that we as humans crave.  There's a theory around at the moment that gets people thinking about whether they are past, present or future thinkers.  The idea is actually applied to corporate/business thinking, but my reflections are really about how it can be applied to every day life.  
So does the problem really lie in our need to be always bettering ourselves, whether that be a job, a hobby, or maybe even a relationship?  A generation ago I am sure people were more 'satisfied with their lot', or at least they were able to dream dreams, have plans, but not feel the overwhelming desire to MAKE IT HAPPEN even minute of the day.  So maybe the different between them and us - or more accurately, the difference between people who never seem to be ''settled'' and those that are, is not an ability to forgo, or  let go of, plans and dreams, and nor is it a dubious ability to settle/compromise/appease their current state of being, but simply the ability to be content. 

Socrates“He who is not contented with what he has, would not be contented with what he would like to have.”
― Socrates

Lev Grossman
“[F]or just one second, look at your life and see how perfect it is. Stop looking for the next secret door that is going to lead you to your real life. Stop waiting. This is it: there's nothing else. It's here, and you'd better decide to enjoy it or you're going to be miserable wherever you go, for the rest of your life, forever.”
― Lev GrossmanThe Magicians
Charles H. Spurgeon
“You say, 'If I had a little more, I should be very satisfied.' You make a mistake. If you are not content with what you have, you would not be satisfied if it were doubled.”
― Charles H. Spurgeon

My favourite of the above quotes is the middle one.  I have been guilty so often of thinking ''when x happens my life will really start'', or ''things would be absolutely perfect if only x changed''.  Worse, I have probably spent far too many hours of my life looking wistfully at the lives of others, and wanting what they have, and not enough hours looking back into my own and being glad for what I have myself. Many is the day I have been completely sorry for myself - not enough money, geographically isolated from ''where the action is'', tied to the house by small kids, unsatisfying (or non existent) job... whatever the problem of the day was...and have not taken time to be content with what I have.   From the outside looking in my life probably looks pretty why don't I appreciate it more!
When I asked my long time married friends what the secret to staying married is, they looked almost blankly at me to begin with, but concluded, after much discussion, that they key was simply to being able to appreciate the moments of each day for what they were.  Everyone I asked conceded that they had had plenty of ''i wish this were different'' moments.  Occasional temptations (human or otherwise). Hard times.  Moments of dislike and disappointment in their spouse.  But that, on the balance, by exercising some rational thought, plenty of deep breaths, and a healthy dose of  self control, they could find happiness..even being content with life.  It didn't mean stopping dreaming, or giving up on the future with resignation, but it did mean making a deliberate and conscious effort to be thankful for where they were in the present, without having to fill that present with excitement or thrill - just to be ''content'' with their life.  
There is no doubt that the people I know who are the unhappiest are also the least content.  And the ''happiest'' hold a mindset of contentment (and again I reiterate that doesn't mean that they are goal less, direction less or indulging in unimaginative uneventful lives - just that they appreciate fully the place they are in right now, resulting in a peaceful attitude to life  that I both admire and desire)
I guess it's partly what my Nana used to call counting blessings. It's partly about knowing that some dreams will only ever be dreams and that's OK.  It's partly about remembering that the human condition is to always want more and possibly never been satisfied.  (the Augustine concept of the God shaped vacuum).  
Wikipedia says (so it must be true right...) that contentment is an attitude not an attainment. 
So though it might be an oxymoron, I strive to be content.  

Monday, September 22, 2014

The measure of success

As I drove to work today I listened to a debate raging on talkback radio about the ''haves and have nots''. It was a developing conversation that had started with the question of whether or not there is poverty in New Zealand, and if so, why that is - but had moved to more general concepts of why certain people might end up in certain situations yet others don't.

A man called in who had grown up in a poor Maori community, with little education, but he described himself as having 'made a decision to better himself'' and was now employed,  a home owner, and had many of the other markers our society sees as success.

The host asked - what made the difference? How do people turn their lives around? The man answered, it's about making good choices.  Deciding what you want from life and going for it.  The host asked, but how do you do that? How do you know to do that? The caller was, in fact a bit non plussed. He suggested education as key. And possibly the support of a family or community as another.

I haven't phoned in (yet!), but I think I'd both agree and disagree with that.  In my business coaching career I have worked with people who were incredibly well educated - some even had PhDs or multiple qualifications, and yet they were still unable to run a business. I know people with early childhood qualifications who are no better (or worse ) parents than any of us.  I know people who have had absolutely shocking family lives that have gone on to be amazing parents, spouses, employees and friends.  And a few who had a fantastic upbringing but have been less of a success themselves.

So here's what I think:

There are two main differences between people who are ''successful'' or not (and it doesn't really matter how you specifically define, or even measure, that success) Firstly, those who are successful understand cause and effect.  They get consequence. They think beyond the here and now.  And secondly, they understand their place in the world and  how they can contribute to it.  Successful people appreciate the impact they can have on both their immediate surroundings and also the more distant future.

I grew up in a fairly typical  working class family with plenty of challenges and adversity of it's own. I was not necessarily encouraged to have ''big hairy audacious goals'' but I was certainly expected to achieve the usual social markers - a job, a house, a good family life. And there was plenty of support for going the extra mile if that was what I wanted to do - which led me to have a great career and travel extensively.  There was also a big emphasis on social responsibility on both a micro and macro level (the micro was possibly too much so in that I heard ''what will the neighbours think'' rather a lot!) But that did contribute to me being incredibly mindful of how my actions. or the actions of others, could impact on life, often for years to come.  

There are many things in my life that I could argue have contributed to my success, or lack thereof. I am fairly smart (something I only came to realise and appreciate in later years),  but I am not particularly well educated.  I make bad decisions just like everyone else.  I try to take responsibility for those. I know I have a habit of speaking before I think - sometimes my consideration of the short term is a bit skewed!  But I would like to think that in the bigger scheme of things, I am quite good at understanding how my every day, here and now, decision making might impact on my future.  It means I can take a while to make a decision - whether it be about a social, emotional, or economic issue.  It can take me a long time to achieve things - but I'd rather take the slow road, the conservative road, not least because I am sure those ''little steps'' would be easier to undo than big leaps of faith and more hasty far reaching decisions.  I suppose it could be loftily described as self control - and although I am the first person to say that I don't always exercise it as well as I might, I do think this is a big part of it.  So often there are things I really want to do...but I don't because I think (...worry...panic) about the impact those things might have on people around me, or on my future.

I like excitement and I like to be challenged, but the conservative me is always considering the ''what if''.  That probably makes me a bit boring to some, and it is true that in the main, risk is not my friend. With the right support team I am prepared to take risks for sure, but that too is about weighing up consequences - and feeling safe with the people offering to catch me if I fail! As a result there are probably opportunities that have passed me by, and may not come my way again. But I do think that this attunement to cause and effect, to forever considering how my decisions will impact on my long term future - be that my job, my home, my relationships - will ultimately allow me to look back on my life and say ''yes, you were a success''.