We’re All Below Average Sometimes: On Compassion, Kindness, and Not Becoming a Narcissist

“Do your little bit of good where you are; it’s those little bits of good put together that overwhelm the world.” ~Desmond Tutu

Last week, I had a drink with a friend — a wise, wise woman who also happens to be a very talented therapist — and she recounted for me a story about suggesting to a client that perhaps happiness isn’t actually what we should be chasing after in this life.

What if happiness isn’t the goal?

My friend said her client’s mind was blown. But also:  There was SO MUCH relief in realizing that she didn’t have to be happy in order to be content. And that being happy isn’t actually the point of life anyway.

I remember watching an Eddie Izzard special several years ago during which he poked fun at Americans for our relentless, almost-aggressive pursuit of happiness. The bit was hilarious — like most of Eddie Izzard’s comedy — but the truth in what he was saying didn’t really become apparent to me until a few years later, after I’d found that my own unceasing efforts to just be happy already were actually making me kind of miserable.

New research reveals that tirelessly pursuing happiness — whatever that is anyway — actually makes us less happy.

And I can attest from my own experience that trying to be happy all the time kind of sucks. Because happiness isn’t a final destination, or something you achieve one time and then never deviate from once you’ve arrived there.

Nope.

Happiness is fickle and fleeting and fun for a while, but also not realistically sustainable for long periods of time.

The Declaration of Independence guarantees us “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” This is a pretty ubiquitously familiar phrase from a centuries-old document. But personally, I think it’s done us a disservice by building this happiness myth right into the foundation of our country.

What if happiness isn’t the point? What if we pursued meaning instead?

To me, this feels like a more attainable goal and a more accurate representation of what it’s really like to be alive. Because being a human is fucking hard sometimes and happiness isn’t always available for the taking.

Regardless of how hard you might try to chase it.

I recently watched a TEDx talk given by Dr. Kristin Neff, who researches self-compassion and spoke very eloquently in her short presentation about the differences between this (i.e. self-compassion) and self-esteem, highlighting how one almost certainly fosters greater emotional well-being while the other has the potential to lead to narcissism.

Which is something she says we are seeing an epidemic of in our country. (And I think our recent election has put this problem front and center for us all to witness firsthand.)

I was struck by the overlap between our efforts to build self-esteem based on being always and without deviation above average in everything and our relentless pursuit of happiness. Both are based on impossibilities.

And both have some not-so-awesome side effects, of which narcissism is just one.

(Though a particularly dangerous and damaging one, if you ask me.)

What if you traded self-esteem for self-compassion and stopped chasing the oft-repeated lie of unwavering happiness in favor of living a more meaningful life?

I believe there’s great potential there for freedom and contentment and joy, and just so much more space to embrace being an imperfectly complex human.

Acknowledging that I am not going to be great at all the things, that I might (ahem, will) fail, that I am sometimes going to be average (or worse), has counterintuitively helped me learn how to accept and appreciate myself more.

Just like abandoning my misguided efforts to achieve this made-up state of Forever Happy has freed me up to really engage with and enjoy a more nuanced experience of being alive. And it has helped me find contentment even in moments — or days — of grief or frustration or feeling painfully alone.

I’m not trying to be a total buzzkill here. But I am trying to advocate for being a bit more realistic about what this life business is all about.

For releasing yourself from the pressure to be happy all the time.

For being kind to yourself in the face of a less-than-flawless existence.

For giving yourself permission to be messy and confused and sad and (gasp!) below the curve some of the time.

Because I think removing these arbitrary and absurdly-narrow ideas about appropriate and ideal ways to feel in this life can be profound in its capacity to boost your contentment on a daily basis. And to enhance your feelings of self-worth without relying on a false foundation of inflated ego in order to do so.

It can make us kinder and more compassionate and more connected to each other.

And I think the world is crying out for these things quite clearly right now, and that it is our responsibility as individuals to contribute to the collective compassion and kindness fund as often as we can.

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