An Uncomfortable Question

Fifteen years ago, like millions of teenagers consumed by imagined angst, I kept a diary for the purpose of pseudo poetic ramblings about love, confusion and awkwardness.

I asked many questions on the pages of that diary, which at the time seemed deep and profound, but later — I admitted — were actually quite embarrassing. I remember often scrawling out the words “what’s the purpose of life?” And while at the time there was probably nothing more to it than hormone-fueled soul-searching, it’s a question that I’ve come to realize we should all ask ourselves a little more frequently and a little more unapologetically, especially as rational, and supposedly responsible, adults.

In a world that’s getting faster and faster, I challenge you to sit down with pen and paper and write down a list of what makes you happy: people, activities, places, tastes, smells, songs, whatever. Make it however long you want. Then look at it and ask yourself how many of those things regularly feature in your day to day life. All? A half? A quarter? A single one? Or perhaps none?

It’s an uncomfortable truth, but it’s easy to be swept up in the relentless daily rat race of being an adult and being professional and to lose sight of why we actually do it and what we really care about.

We spend hours commuting in grimy conditions, work tirelessly overtime, socialize ferociously, gripped by the fear of missing out, desperately try to self-improve — even if our body says no — and perhaps most perilously, we skimp on rest.

What shocks me is how many of us know that we’re doing it, recognize the destructive potential of our behavior, curse ourselves for continuing, yet still never change. It’s what everyone does and if we were to hit the brakes then we’d risk something happening. What that might be, we’re actually not quite sure.

One friend recently said it me that we do it because “we have it too good.” We’ve got a roof over our heads, food to eat, people who love us, no war in the street, WiFi, free coffee at the office, ready meals in the freezer. To feel human — to feel worthy — we seek resistance and challenge. If we set ourselves hurdles then we can conquer them and earn a sense of achievement that we can’t secure elsewhere. Is that really it though? Is that the purpose of life?

Too often we hear tales of individuals who have endured harrowing illness and all types of trauma but have emerged on the other side with enviable lucidity and the ability to determine exactly what is important to them and what is inconsequential.

When I’m lying on my deathbed and recount my life’s biggest regret, it certainly won’t be that work meeting I skipped — which may or may not have cost me a marginal promotion — or those 10 extra pounds I never lost but really should have.

My biggest regret, like most of us, will more likely be that I neglected to spend as much time with family and friends as I could have, or that I didn’t appreciate my health for all that it was worth. It’s just a shame that it takes so much time and pain for us to be able to see that.

Especially as women, we’re constantly urged to be present and ‘lean in’. We’re told that this makes us strong and that we should do so because it is our duty, as females, to stamp out gender inequality.

But is it really worth breaking ourselves to be patted on the back and told we’re doing a good job if that’s not what makes us truly happy? Can we really thrive and be the best versions of ourselves if we’re exhausted, depleted, burned out?

Perhaps it’s time to dust off those old diaries. We may have been young and foolish, but we also may have been onto something by asking that uncomfortable question.

After that, let us go back to our list of things that make us happy and ask ourselves why we can’t pepper our lives with more of those things. Is it really so hard?

We, after all, are the architects of our own happiness so let’s be good to ourselves, nurture our bodies and health, sleep, eat, laugh, be deeply aware but grateful that we have it ‘too good.’

It might be uncomfortable at first, but with a bit of practice everything will start making a little more sense, even in a world where slowing down doesn’t really seem like an option.

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