Why accepting being average is the key to happiness

‘Would you rather be special or happy?’ a friend asked me.

‘I want to say happy but…’ I trailed off.

The truth is, the vast majority of us probably put the desire to be exceptional or superior above our own happiness. Being average is not aspirational and it’s not impressive. But it might just be the key to contentment.

This is the terrain explored by Eleanor Ross, author of Good Enough: The Myth Of Success And How to Celebrate the Joy In Average.

Ross, a playwright and journalist based in Rome, admits she once existed in a frenzied cycle of work, productivity and ‘success’ at a very high price: she suffered a breakdown and attempted suicide – things she lays bare in Good Enough.

‘There have been times in my life when I looked like I had it all,’ she says. ‘I’d see stories about people having breakdowns and thought “it’ll never happen to me”.’

Throughout her twenties Ross was working hard, working late and working out – with no let up.

‘I don’t think I was depressed, but I couldn’t think,’ she says, explaining that the articles she had submitted the week before the attempt on her life made no sense.

‘I couldn’t formulate words. My brain had just gone “no”! It had no more capacity.’

This burnout precipitated the research and writing of Good Enough, which highlights how damaging society’s obsession with success is – particularly in the face of obstacles such as lockdown. If you didn’t ‘pivot’ in 2020, you were nothing.

‘It is a rallying call to go a bit easier on yourself – what you’re doing is good enough for the moment,’ says Ross, who believes so many of us are miserable in our search for success because we’re trying to do it in every aspect of our lives and we’re comparing ourselves to others, too.

For those in a position to do so, quitting the fast lane proved the quickest route to happiness.

Francesca, a London-based former solicitor who is now focusing on creative projects, is much happier having last year waved goodbye to what was on the face of it, a stellar career – responsibility, a high salary and the social cache of being an established practising lawyer.

‘By the time I resigned I was so burnt out that it was a Herculean struggle just to make myself do the bare minimum,’ she says. ‘I used to face each day with dread. I had constant anxiety about things going wrong and clients calling to complain.’

Coming off the corporate treadmill has been nothing short of a revelation.

‘I still feel guilt rising when I’m not being “productive”, but it’s slowly getting better. In fact, I have no idea how I found the time or energy to do the job,’ says Francesca.

‘I have absolutely no career ambitions anymore. So no to a partner or managerial role in a law firm, and yes to short-term contracts or consulting work where an end is always in sight. To be honest, I’d be perfectly happy just doing the photocopying.’

Ross believes lockdown is not the time to panic about career progression and advocates for normalising doing nothing: ‘The new lockdown doesn’t have to be a barrier to career success but it’s vital not to panic and now isn’t the time to compare yourself to others. Just accept yourself and appreciate that we’re doing our best.’

She also encourages those whose careers are not affected to practise empathy: ‘Support colleagues: if they have kids, step in and help them. Give back in small ways. It’s not the time to crush them to reach the top.’

Among other things, Ross writes about sleep as a competition. Is there anything we haven’t turned into a competition en route to success?

‘No,’ she says. ‘We’re all trying to create a sense of worth. Your hobby becomes your income, your gym your gladiatorial pitch. Everything becomes a competition with yourself and others.’

But it is possible to be successful and happy, right?

Clare, a director in a private equity fund, feels she’s achieved this through accepting that she’s not essential.

‘I have the confidence that I do a good job, and I require personal time and freedom,’ she says. ‘Allowing your work colleagues to own you is an issue and you need to establish that that isn’t how you operate.

Clare believes it is crucial to focus only on the most important things.

‘I ignore everything else,’ she says. ‘Anything that seeps into the frame that isn’t on my critical path, I cancel or delete ruthlessly.’

So how do we recondition ourselves to accept average? Ross’s response is simple: ‘You are nothing! Just a speck in time – at the risk of sounding highfalutin, that knowledge is our ticket to safety and a happy life.’

Good Enough is published by Hodder & Stoughton and out now.

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