Reading advice on how to live a good life can be exhausting. Besides chasing material success and endlessly pushing yourself to learn and grow, we're also bombarded with endless advice on self-actualization, from mindfulness to cultivating vulnerability to pursuing hobbies and staying in physical shape.
Taken together all this makes life seem hard. No wonder so many of us feel like we must be failing to achieve the good life. But maybe the problem isn't your accomplishments. Maybe, suggests a fascinating new study, the problem is your expectations. The good life, if you define it properly, might be way more within reach than you think
People's surprisingly modest definition of the good life.
Success, as I have pointed out many times in this column before, is a meaningless word unless you personally define it. One woman's ideal life is another's nightmare. There is no universal yardstick. But according to this new Australian research recently published in Psychological Science there is a surprising amount of agreement around the world about what the good life roughly looks like.
When a team of researchers asked around 8,000 people from across the globe exactly what constituted the perfect life, on average they reported they wanted to live to 90 and have an IQ of 120. Good health was very important, they responded, but spending about 75 percent of their time happy was good enough to qualify as ideal.
What do you notice about these responses? One trait stuck out to University of Queensland psychologist Matthew J. Hornsey, one of the authors of the study. "People's sense of perfection is surprisingly modest," he commented. "People wanted to have positive qualities, such as health and happiness, but not to the exclusion of other darker experiences."
Ninety, for instance, is only slightly more than current life expectancy in most developed countries. An IQ of 120 is smart, but it's not genius level. And while people's preferences varied slightly between different countries and cultural backgrounds, an achievable sense of the good life was consistent around the world.
The "principle of maximization is threaded through many prominent philosophical and economic theories,, but our data suggest that people have much more complex, blended notions of perfection, ones that embrace both light and dark," Hornsey concluded.
The problem isn't your life; it's your ambition.
What's the takeaway here apart from a voyeuristic glimpse at other people's hopes? For some folks who already have healthy expectations -- or those facing serious challenges that definitely mean they're far from their ideal life -- very little. You guys can keep on keeping on with your reasonable ambitions or understandable striving for improvement.
But in today's competitive world, that's a sadly small proportion of people. Lots of folks who are reasonably financial secure, in good health, and surrounded by opportunity remain dissatisfied with their progress, constantly comparing themselves to unreasonable standards and finding themselves wanting. For that group, this study is a healthy wake-up call that your problem isn't your life, it's your extreme ambition. One way to instantly achieve the good life is to simply redefine what you mean by it.
Is it sometimes a great thing for the world that people drive themselves to extremes to achieve incredible things? Sure. Is aiming high in life often laudable? Absolutely. But even if you're pushing yourself to build a great company or achieve some other extraordinary aim now, you should probably keep in the back of your mind that none of that is necessary for the good life.
According to your fellow humans and psychological science, modest ambitions can be perfection, and will probably make you happier and saner. Choosing to embrace that reality doesn't make you an underachiever. It makes you wise.