We’re told that an ordinary life is a boring life. To live life fully, we need to do something different, something special. We need to stand out from the crowd and be someone memorable.
The problem with this way of thinking that, by definition, we can’t all be extraordinary. If we all did something extraordinary, it wouldn’t be extraordinary any more. Therefore the vast majority of us are “doomed” to live completely ordinary lives.
Well, I am here to tell you that it’s okay to be ordinary. Ordinary doesn’t have to mean dull, boring or unfulfilled. Read on to find out why you can stop worrying about doing anything amazing, because an ordinary life is all you need to be happy.
Why do we want to be extraordinary?
I think there are three main reasons why we think we need to live an extraordinary life.
1. We want to leave a legacy
There is an innate human desire to leave a “legacy” — some kind of mark to commemorate our existence and prove that we were really here. It’s one of the reasons many people have children, as a way of leaving a part of themselves behind. It’s also why people feel that they need to live an extraordinary life — they want to make sure that they are remembered after they’re gone.
2. We see other people being extraordinary
The prevalence of social media means that we spend a lot of time witnessing other people’s “extraordinary” lives. We see other people climbing mountains and jumping out of planes. We don’t see them driving to work or doing the washing up.
Human beings naturally compare themselves to others and being bombarded by these images makes us feel that our daily lives should be as exciting as everyone else’s highlight reel. (See my article The Addiction You Didn’t Know You Had to understand more about how social media impacts your happiness).
3. We all think we’re special
It’s not just millennials who think they’re special. The last century has seen the rise of the “self” in Western cultures and, these days, we are all rather obsessed with ourselves. We all want to stand out, to be seen and to be heard.
Somehow, we have started believing that we need to be special in order to be important. Unless we are extraordinary, we don’t matter.
Why we should stop trying to be extraordinary
So society and biology are encouraging us to strive for extraordinariness. Well, here are a few reasons why I think they’re both wrong:
1. Most people can’t name their 8 great-grandparents!
If you’re worrying about how you’ll be remembered, don’t. Most people can’t name their 8 great-grandparents. (Quick test: can you?) That means that, in a few short years after you die, it’s more than likely that nobody will remember you anyway.
Sorry if you find that depressing. It’s actually meant to be a liberating thought, to free you from the pressure to leave a legacy. There’s no need to waste your one precious life worrying about how you’ll be remembered. You can simply concentrate on living for now. Focus on how you can have a positive impact on the people you interact with now, rather than focussing on how an imaginary future generation will talk about you.
2. Ordinary doesn’t have to be boring
Our culture frames ordinary as boring. We’re told that we shouldn’t want to live a life like everyone else, that we should strive for something different and better.
However, normal doesn’t have to be boring. In fact, the most “normal” things, like getting married or having a baby, can feel miraculous when they happen to you. Even the daily routine doesn’t have to be boring. The “9 to 5” is only mundane when we aren’t experiencing any growth or progression.
The irony of trying to live an extraordinary life is that it’s actually the ordinary things that make us happiest. If we find meaningful work, cultivate close relationships and develop our skills, this can create a deeply fulfilling life, even if it isn’t “special.” We don’t have to do something different to everyone else in order to have a good life.
3. An extraordinary life doesn’t stay extraordinary for long
If we try to have an extraordinary life, how do we keep it extraordinary? Human beings are incredibly good at adapting to new circumstances, which works against us when we seek novelty. Even the most exciting adventures soon become the new normal.
You might dream of “running away from it all” to open a hostel in South America or become a ski instructor in the Alps, but how long would your idyllic dream stay idyllic for? Whatever you do, you’ll soon get used to it and it will no longer be extraordinary.
4. We don’t need to be special to find meaning
Feeling that your life has meaning is one of the most important components of happiness, and something I have written about a lot. You need to feel that you have a purpose, a reason for getting up in the morning. (See my article How To Find The Meaning Of Life (Maybe) for more about the important of meaning).
However, I think many of us feel that a meaningful life has to be an extraordinary life. I know I used to think that. I thought that the only people living truly meaningful lives were those heroes who are setting up orphanages, curing diseases and saving the rainforest. I thought that you had to “make a difference” in order to find meaning.
Now, I have come to realise that meaning and ordinary are not mutually exclusive concepts. We do not have to do anything special to live a purposeful life. We need to feel that we are making a difference, but that difference doesn’t have to be on a grand scale. We can make a difference by being a caring mother, a diligent employee, a supportive friend.
5. We don’t need to be the best, we just need to get better
Closely linked to our desire to be special is our desire to be the best. We feel that we won’t be noticed or appreciated unless we are better than everyone else. Our culture encourages us to constantly pitch ourselves against others in a bid to “win” some competition or another. The truth is that we don’t need to be the best anything. We just need to always be getting better.
It is important to our well-being to work towards goals, to feel a sense of progress and growth. It is this constant and gradual growth that makes us happy, not the short-lived thrill of winning or achieving (see my article The Surprising Reason Why Achieving Goals Doesn’t Make You Happy). We need to improve, but we don’t need to be extraordinarily good at anything to be happy.
To sum up…
Our culture teaches us that our lives need to be extraordinary in order to matter. This belief leads us to disappointment and frustration, because an extraordinary life is not only rare, but unsustainable. The truth is that an ordinary life does not have to be a boring life and that ordinariness is the most reliable route to fulfilment and happiness.
- Don’t worry about leaving a legacy because nobody will remember you anyway
- It’s the ordinary things that actually make you happy
- Even extraordinary things become mundane after a while
- You need a purpose, but it doesn’t have to be anything special
- Being the best doesn’t matter, as long as you’re always getting better
I’d love to hear what you think. Do you feel the pressure to live an extraordinary life?
Originally published at https://ontheroadtohappiness.org on August 31, 2019.