The modern notion of the perfect life is making us miserable

The concept of heaven and hell is centuries old. We may not have studied it in school, but we saw cartoons. A magical place floating in the skies, where the harp is playing, a world where you can touch the clouds, and no evil can touch you. A utopia, where you have everything you want.

The idea is that people who do good go to heaven after they die, and the rest go to hell. This was probably a powerful motivation for potentially millions of people to do good deeds, and perhaps it still is, though no proof exists of such a place.

Today we live in a different world that has more respect for science than our ancestors. Or does it?

The average person I meet today does not believe in God. If I ask you whether you believe in Heaven, you are likely to laugh at me. It sounds ludicrous. But instead, let me ask you this: do you believe in a happy place? Do you have goals? Dreams? Consider a couple of popular examples.

I want to lose weight and look great

Somehow this generation is simultaneously the most unfit as well as the most obsessed with fitness. I don’t remember ever going a week without hearing someone complaining about gaining weight (including myself). The worst part however is over-quantification of fitness. From counting steps to calories to wearables that remind you to drink water and get up, and the biggest one of all: weight itself. I miss the times when standing on the weighing machine cost 1 rupee at railway stations, seeing the colours light up and the little slip coming out, and excitedly sharing the number with others.

Now it is an anxiety creating machine you have at your gym, at your clinic, and even your homes. A tiny LCD screen and a couple of digits can bring your whole life come crashing down. 

I know people who go their entire day and week feeling like this. Why though? Nobody can dispute the rewards of exercise, but is there any merit in measuring our success every second we get? The goal becomes a milestone to reach: and we huff and puff to get to that point, because that’s where we think the magic happens. Yes, at 9.4% body fat, 22 BMI, I shall rejoice. But you usually don’t. Because two seconds and a scroll on Instagram later you set a new goal, or your fitness app sets a new one for you.

The people unhappiest with their fitness are not the most unfit, they are the ones who believe that hitting a certain combination of numbers will change their life. It becomes an elusive heaven that seems to slip farther away every time they think they’ve reached it.

The dream job

During placement season, one is usually expected to walk into interviews expecting this question: what is your dream company (or three)? When you are conditioned to think this way, sooner or later you really begin to believe there is a dream company out there. Google, Microsoft, Facebook, Amazon - it doesn’t matter which, but you start to believe that when you land a job here, it would be a big deal, and you would be happier/more successful.

The dream job has other forms as well. It could be as simple as reaching a certain stage: the ability to afford a sports car, having fifty people report to you, a certain role such as a brand manager, or just an esteemed designation.

We all know people who buy into this, including ourselves. You like those posts on LinkedIn, those success stories, those surveys of best places to work. You start believing that the moment any of your little dreams become a reality, and like a final screw that was missing falls into place, a satisfying click sound will be heard, and life will be better. Broadly there are two possible outcomes:

  1. You don’t get what you want: this makes you resent the place you are in, the people around you, your boss, and your work. The jigsaw of your life is missing key pieces, and until those pieces start falling into place, the others don’t hold any value.
  2. You get what you want: That’s great, now all you need to do is wait for the dark curtains to lift and watch your wonderful life unfold. But when life continues to stay more or less the same, you either try to look for more missing pieces, or if you’re wise, create a new picture with the same pieces.

If the achievement of these dreams becomes a yardstick to measure quality of life, how are they any different from the notion of heaven? They become checkboxes to tick. Like those travellers who count the number of countries they’ve visited. Sunset point check. Walking tour check. Museum check. Portrait of ice cream cone check. 

The point isn’t that goals are inherently bad. Get a new job, new role, make more money, get slimmer, do more reps and clock more steps. But, firstly, if you are constantly measuring your life every second like heart monitoring on an ICU patient, life will be miserable regardless of the results.

Secondly, there is no point waiting for your heaven. This space where you are, this second when you are, this is it. You cannot stand in line for happiness, or wait for a cab to take you there. It has no other coordinates besides where you are. Don’t wait for that perfect job, perfect shape, perfect partner, or perfect destination. Fuck happiness, not being miserable is good enough as well. It may sound impossible to believe sometimes, that you can have joy in life with the way you look right now, the money you make right now, the work you do right now, and the people around you right now. But it is, otherwise we’d all sulk forever.

I think this is a definition of self-love and acceptance I can get onboard with. It’s not about telling yourself you are amazing and wonderful the way you are. That never really resonated with me. We can aspire to be better and be better, without hating our current selves. Life is not a single jigsaw, but a kaleidoscope that you can keep on spinning to see it in newer, healthier ways.

There are two tragedies in life. One is to lose your heart’s desire. The other is to gain it .

George Bernard Shaw

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