Here’s a hypothetical that’s probably more real than not for most people: You’ve spent 20 years or more hating your body, seemingly unable to drop those last few pounds that stand between you and happiness, despite seemingly constantly denying yourself the food you really want, and working out till you’re miserable.
Is quitting and learning to accept your body as it is a smart move at this point, or is that, y’know… being a quitter or loser? More importantly, how do you figure out where that line is, and strike a balance between achievement and contentment?
Surprise — it’s tricky.
“To give advice in either direction — always follow your dreams, or always play it safe — will be the wrong advice to a lot of people,” says Dr. Ryan Howes, a clinical psychologist in Pasadena.
The first step, Howes recommends, is trying to understand yourself better. Are you the type of guy who does better with specific goals, like losing 20 pounds? Or are you receptive to more general goals, like eating healthy all the time? There’s no right or wrong answer here, but there’s probably an approach that resonates more strongly for you, and you can use that to figure out which side of the line you want to be on.
Howes also points out that striving for self-improvement and being happy with who you are aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive, because for some people, “who they are” is a person who aims to better themself.
Obviously, not everyone can play in the NBA or become a CEO, so whatever your approach, being realistic is key. But it’s important to remember that everyone can be a best version of themselves. “The opposite would be an acceptance that your potential is fixed, and you need to resign yourself to staying stuck,” says Howes. “That’s not an acceptance many would find fulfilling.”
All in all, the stark choice between striving for change and accepting things the way they are can be a misleading one. Instead, it’s all about framing your goal the right way. One such example from Howes: Say you want to stop yourself from talking smack about people you know. As opposed to trying to stop gossiping altogether, make it your goal to look at the positive side of people, rather than the negative. That way, even if you occasionally slip, you haven’t failed. Because if you commit yourself to keeping your mouth shut completely but slip up even once, you’ll probably beat yourself up over it.
Another example: Maybe you want to earn more money. What’s a better goal to set — dedicating yourself to earning a $200,000 salary, or committing yourself to being a hard worker who looks for new opportunities? One of these is likely to disappoint, leading you to give up; the other allows you to continue growing, whatever the outcome. You know which is which.
A final thought: The funny thing about the pursuit of happiness is that true happiness is often found in the pursuit of something. And so chasing a goal may make you a more content person than simply being content with who you are.