Growing up, I had a vision of “the perfect life”. The description of it changed as I did, but there was always something to continue to strive for, just out of reach.
That is, until there wasn’t.
Once I had been graduated for over a year, I realized this could very much be my life for the indefinite future. I was in beautiful California with my closest friends, making decent money. I had reasonable work hours at a fulfilling job, and some flexibility to travel. On paper, life was everything that I had envisioned it to be. I had nothing further that I cared to attain.
Yet I was not content.
I began to find issue with the tech scene. The monoculture, the gentrification. I saw problems with my work, and I even became jaded with traveling, seeing it as diminishing returns, talking to the same kinds of people no matter where I went.
I couldn’t justify the discontentment. How could I feel this way? This is what I had worked so hard to get to. So many other people would have loved to have this kind of life. I felt like I needed to change something somehow. Maybe my location or my profession. I didn’t know what, but this couldn’t be it, right?
Discontentment links us all
I talked to and read about other people who seemed to have “made it”, and the more people I heard from, the more evident it became that there wasn’t really such a thing as a perfect life. Everyone has problems, regardless of their status or achievements. Sometimes we get painted an unrealistic image from social media and it’s hard to imagine others’ complexities.
Travel bloggers get to experience the world but they have unstable schedules and deal with long bouts of loneliness. All-stars that shatter world records still fight with identity crises. People with more money than they know what to do with struggle with living up to expectations. Friends who have it easy on Tinder find it devalues love for them — why try when another opportunity is just a swipe away?
What people faced had varying degrees of consequence to the outside world, but for each the inner turmoil seemed equally difficult to combat.
Maybe ultimately that’s what we all have in common. No matter what stage of life we’re in, we’ll still find problems with our existence. We’ll still experience dissatisfaction with our status quo. There’s even a term in social psychology for this — hedonic adaptation. When something great happens too frequently, we adjust our baseline happiness to it, and it no longer feels great.
Two options to contentment
So what can we do about this? The obvious solution is to make a change. If we know what we’re unhappy about, adjust what we can until we’re happy. That’s often the default solution when we’re chasing a dream, when we’re blind to what could be wrong on the other side.
But what if we can’t make a change? What if we’re not privileged enough to have options, or we’re so privileged as I am that there’s nothing further to change?
The other solution is acceptance. Recognizing that different isn’t always better and knowing that there’ll always be some bad bits. We can be mindful and find gratitude for what we have, getting more out of the good times, and simultaneously, adjust our expectations for the bad and be okay with its existence. The unhappiness may still come, but that’s simply part of being human. It’s kind of amazing actually that we feel such a range of emotions.
So sometimes we may seem stuck with just one option to contentment, but when we’re not, how do we decide which to go with? How do we ensure we’re not trapped always chasing change, yet also not just settling? How do we balance ambition and affirmation?
Unfortunately I still don’t have a good heuristic for that. It really varies case by case, but I think even just seeing that we have two options puts us in a better place than thinking we’re confined to one.
What have I chosen to do in my situation? I guess I’m doing a mix of both. I’m accepting that I have it quite good, and it’s okay that sometimes it still feels bad. I’m accepting the Bay area for what it is. The best parts of a culture are also its worst, so as flawed as the tech scene seems, there are many perks that come with it, and I’m appreciating those more now. And traveling the way I did before may feel like diminishing returns, but there are other ways I can experience other places, like living there for longer periods of time to interact more with locals.
At the same time I’m making micro-adjustments to test what can further be improved. And I’m still planning to make a drastic change at some point. But now it’s not that I need that change, but because I’d like to try it before I have real duties to deal with, when it’d be irresponsible for me to do so. A chance to explore what else is out there, to gain a better understanding of others outside of our bubble.
Is this the right choice? I don’t really know. But that’s okay! It’s part of the beauty of living. If we made perfect decisions and had perfect lives, it’d actually be damn boring.