To achieve or not to achieve?

To achieve or not to achieve, that is the question.

I recently received a newsletter from my therapist friend Bonnie Miller, with article ‘The Happiness of Non-Achievement’. Now, if you were my client you’d know I encourage celebrating achievements. Writing a list of them even. A long list. Keeping it. Referring back to it.

And here is Bonnie celebrating non-achievement.

Click here for Bonnie’s site.  I’m reprinting her thoughts here –

‘I was at an art show recently where my friend Ron made his very first sale- the largest piece in the show sold for $5,000. I was excited for him, and he seemed pleased as well.

But when I asked him how he and his wife would celebrate, he seemed very nonchalant. ‘Oh, I don’t know if we will,’ he said.

Now, I’m not the kind of person who opens a bottle of champagne for every achievement, but this seemed notably non-reactive to me. He has a day job, and so money wasn’t the issue- though his work is expensive to make. But when I asked him about the significance of not-celebrating, what he said surprised me.

“I’m happy to sell a piece,’ he said. “And I’m equally happy not to sell a piece. My happiness doesn’t depend on sales, really. I learned a long time ago that most people make it far too difficult to be happy- and I decided that I would do things differently. I don’t raise the bar at all- I just lay it on the ground. Then, to be happy, all I have to do is step over it.”

This was several months ago, and I’m still in awe of this simple idea.

It has me thinking about how ‘happiness’ gets defined, and by whom… How are ideas of ‘happiness’ related to ideas about ‘success’? And what are the measures of each?

What I like best about Ron’s idea is the notion that ‘people make it far too difficult to be happy’. He’s saying that for most of us, happiness is conditional- it depends on an outcome, achievement or result that we have set our hearts on. And that puts our own happiness in the hands of someone else.

Even if that’s not true, and the goal is self-determined, what happens if our happiness depends upon that goal? If we don’t get there, then most of us respond by being critical of ourselves, scolding, berating or demeaning some perceived deficiency.

What if we just set the bar on the ground? What would happen if we cut the ties between ‘achievement’, ‘accomplishment’ and ‘happiness’? What would the experience of ‘happiness’ be like, without attachment to these other measures?

Since speaking with Ron about this, I’ve been more available, more aware, of what is just going on around me, at any given time. Things like the feeling of moist, warm air on the skin of my arms as I walk to the store for milk. Or the sound of the strange, black bird that is living in my neighbour’s pear tree (a common gackle, as it turns out.) Even noticing how much my feet hurt after a morning painting the living room walls – and feeling happy that I can notice these things, happy at my ability to paint, to walk, to hear.

None of these things are attached to my goals and hopes, my dreams or aspirations. But somehow, noticing these things has allowed me to lighten up when it comes to my goals, hopes, dreams and aspirations.

Ron’s decision to put the ‘bar on the ground’, didn’t just happen, as I found out later.

‘It might have been connected’ he said, to the experience of a serious head injury as a teen, and his almost dying as a result. I guess it’s not surprising- we’ve all heard stories about the gratitude that arises when we are shaken out of our sense of immortality. Wouldn’t it be better if we could connect with this experience without having to face our own, or a loved one’s death?

If the ‘bar’ for happiness was ‘on the ground’, what happiness might be more visible to you?’

So, what do you think? Achieve or not achieve? Aim to achieve or non-achieve? Or both?

ACTION CHALLENGE: Choose one or both of:
1 Write an achievements list, including learning to read/write/swim/drive, times you have helped someone or forgiven someone, losing weight, wins, prizes etc. Add to it and keep the list handy to remind you of what you have achieved when you feel low.

2 Set your bar on  the ground. You are already a winner. What is available to you now?

I’m curious to know your reactions. Post your thoughts below.

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