On the fine line between happiness and complacency..
A while back, I was having a lunchtime conversation with some coworkers about a project that I was involved in - one that was mostly successful, but had gotten a few complaints about something that I had limited control over. I stated that I preferred to ignore the complements and focus on the complaints, and to always focus on the negatives as things that need to be improved - that if you focus on the positives and pat yourself on the back for a job well done, then you will never have a reason to improve. The way I saw it was that happiness is for the weak, for those who don't want to improve, and that because of that I hope I'm never happy, but instead always trying to improve.
My coworkers looked at me like I was crazy, and I figure I probably am.
But a few weeks ago, in a meeting at work, we were shown a video - produced by another university, and aimed mostly at college kids trying to figure out what to do with their lives. It expressed what I was trying to get across - and incorporate into my own life - but did a much better job of it. The film's narrator stated that we should be wary of ever being satisfied, because if we are we become complacent and don't have a reason to try to set higher goals and achieve more.
It's what I was thinking, and it's how I try (but rarely succeed) to approach things in my life. When I finished the Baltimore half-marathon last year, a number of people expressed that I should feel glad that I finished, even though my time was pitiful (in the bottom 10%). I've tried to look at it as an incentive to do better next year - but it probably isn't working so well, since I have yet to significantly. change my diet or exercise routine, although I do have some time left, and it will be easier to do some of those things - like start running outside - once it gets warmer).
What is tricky is trying to balance a desire to be proud of achieving goals with the need to constantly set new goals and having the motivation to continue to achieve them. When you look at most things - say, at personal wealth - there is always room for improvement. You aren't the richest person in the world, and thus you should feel bad about it, and work harder to change it. But statistically, it's unlikely that you will ever be the richest person in the world. If you accept that, you will probably feel better day to day - but you will also probably not work as hard at trying to make more money.
The other thing that makes achieving the goals you set after you've met your initial goals is that they become way harder to meet - a sort of declining marginal return. When I was 100 pounds overweight, losing weight was easy, because making small changes like actually getting some exercise or not eating an entire box of pizza rolls chased by a pint of Ben and Jerry's for dinner would make a big difference. I could also remind myself that if I didn't lose the weight, there was a pretty good chance, statistically, that I'd be dead by age 50. Now, I'm pretty close to a healthy weight but could stand to lose 10 or 15 pounds. It's a lot harder to motivate myself to do that, because not only is it a lot more work, but the benefits aren't nearly as dramatic - making it to age 75 is worth the extra work, but I'm not so sure if making it to 76 is.
I approach a lot of things by trying to picture the worst possible scenario and doing everything possible to avoid it, like working as if doing a less than perfect job would get me fired. While that seems to work on one level - I'm still employed, and have gotten pretty good reviews and increased responsibilities - it also makes me pretty uptight and worried about doing things like taking vacation days, for fear that will make me look bad.
One thing about losing weight was it really shifted my view of personal responsibility. When I was overweight, I tended to blame it on external stuff - genes, health, ect. Once I began to lose weight, I realized that it was under my control - that when I was overweight, it was because I did bad things, and when I wasn't it was because I did good things. In some ways, it's empowering to know that you are in control - but it's also depressing, because you start to look at the other parts of your life that you haven't changed and realize that it's because you aren't working hard enough or making the right choices, not because life is unfair. Of late, I've been trying to put on some muscle, without a whole lot of success. I used to look at the guys at the gym who are ripped, who can wear sleeveless shirts without looking completely ridiculous, and be jealous of them for winning the genetic lottery. I still look on them with envy, but now I know it's not because of luck that they are in better physical shape than I am, but because they work harder, push themselves more, and otherwise make better choices. They look better than me because they are better than me.
And it's even more difficult for things like dating - obviously, I'm alone and single because I'm doing the wrong things, but I haven't figured out what the right things are. Other things in life can be reduced to simple math - want to lose weight? Eat less, burn more calories. What to be ripped? Lift heavier things more times. Want to save more money? Earn more, spend less. But there is no simple formula for finding love, and I can't help but suspect that there is at least some element of luck involved in it, of being in the right place at the right time.
So how can one be proud of one's accomplishments and still driven to accomplish more? There is an old prayer that asks for "the strength to change the things I can, the courage to accept the things I can't , and the wisdom to know the difference." But I suspect few are wise enough to really know the difference, and that that difference isn't so clear-cut.