Our Obsession with Progress

I almost quoted Dolores Umbridge for the title to this blog, but I just couldn’t do it. I’ve been thinking lately about our society’s obsession with the future and with continual improvement. Kate’s last post got me thinking about the nature of happiness and then I was reading Outline by Rachel Cusk and was struck by this passage:

“In his marriage, he now realized, the principle of progress was always at work, in the acquiring of houses, possessions, cars, the drive towards higher social status, more travel, a wider circle of friends, even the production of children felt like an obligatory calling-point on the mad journey; and it was inevitable, he now saw, that once there were no more things to add or improve on, no more goals to achieve or stages to pass through, the journey would seem to have run its course, and he and his wife would be beset by a great sense of futility and by the feeling of some malady, which was really only the feeling of stillness after a life of too much motion, such as sailors experience when they walk on dry land after too long at sea, but which to both of them signified that they were no longer in love. If only we had had the sense, he said, to make our peace with one another then, to start from the honest proposition that we were two people not in love who nonetheless meant one another no harm; well, he said, his eyes brimming again, if that had been the case I believe we might have learned truly to love one another and to love ourselves. But instead we saw it as another opportunity for progress, saw the journey unfolding once more, only this time it was a journey through destruction and war, for which both of us demonstrated just as much energy and aptitude as always.”

Do you even read something and for a second just feel completely seen and understood? That’s how I felt when I read this passage and it’s a little bit unnerving. My life has been a series of goals with the finish line of one race turning in to the starting line of another. I feel lost without goals and without the next tangible thing that I am working towards. Anytime I am confronted with a moment of stillness, I automatically find a new goal or a new thing to do to fill my time. And I don’t think I’m alone in this. Though this kind of work ethic is a good thing, I wonder whether it is an attempt to distract ourselves. We are so uncomfortable with this feeling of stillness that the moment we stop moving we assume we’re doing something horribly wrong. It’s such a deep culturally rooted feeling that it’s even evident in the way we talk about our lives. We talk about being in ruts, about being stagnant and complacent and about settling. These are all the things we don’t want and we are so scared of doing. So instead we always frame our lives, relationships and careers in terms of what we want to do next. We bombard each other and ourselves with questions about the future as though the present without an imagined future is worthless. When you were younger the questions were about where you wanted to go to college; when you were in college the questions were about what you were going to do when you graduated; when you graduated and got a job the questions were about what you were going to do next; when you are in a relationship the questions are about when you will get married; when you are married the questions are about when you will buy a house and when you will have kids. We are all so concerned about our next steps and about everyone else’s next steps. I wonder what will happen in life or in love when there is no obvious next step. Once you have finally acquired everything you think you should have and have checked off all the life accomplishments you think you should check off, then what?

I think part of the reason we glorify this continual improvement model of life is that happiness is most easily felt when it is juxtaposed with struggle and unhappiness. We struggle towards our goals and once we achieve them, for a brief moment, it feels like perfect incandescent euphoria. The kind of happiness felt in stable, long-term contentment is very subtle and not easy to appreciate. It’s like when you have a cold, and you swear on everything that is holy that you will be so grateful when you are healthy again. You will breath in and out of both nostrils and seize the day! And then you get healthy again and you forget again how good it feels to breathe in and out of both nostrils. Because you can’t know how good it feels to breathe in and out of both nostrils unless you remember vividly and painfully how bad it feels to not be able to breathe in and out of both nostrils. And our capacity to remember feeling is actually pretty limited. We can remember events, but to fully conjure how they made us feel is almost impossible. So we have to move away from this kind of happiness that is only found in juxtaposition to struggle. The real accomplishment in life is being able to stomach stillness and to find that eternal source of happiness within yourself.

I think finding that subtle happiness is powerfully linked to gratitude. Not gratitude for material things or big accomplishments, but gratitude for small moments of contentment, the ones that you barely notice when you are so busy moving from thing to thing. Like Kate’s peppermint scented, candle-lit bath she talked about in her previous post. These small moments can be very powerful when we fully immerse ourselves in them. We are scared of stillness because it is harder to recognize and fully feel those subtle moments of happiness. In contrast, the euphoria that comes with drastic swings between struggle and achievement is glaring and palpable. We embrace struggle when it is for the sake of progress, but when it comes to happiness we try to take the easy way out. But once you have tuned in to gratitude and small moments of happiness, you can allow yourself to be filled up by them. Gratitude is a habit and it can be formed as easily as it can be broken. So my challenge to myself and to anyone reading this is: don’t get so caught up in the quest for your next achievement and forget that happiness too is a struggle and must be worked for. Because one day you’ll achieve all those things that you were supposed to achieve and everything will be still and calm at last, which is what you always said you wanted, and you won’t know how to feel content and at peace.


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