Read. Think. Write. Repeat.

The Plateau

Since the beginning of the summer, I’ve been mostly feeling a sense of neutrality. Definitely not unhappy, not quite happy, somewhere in between, better than ‘meh’. It doesn’t feel bad, but it does feel uncomfortable, at least sometimes. However, I suspect this is more to do with our cultural narrative surrounding happiness, than with the actual state of mind that I’m in. Culturally we’re conditioned to think that if we’re not happy, we’re unhappy, that happiness must be pursued, and unhappiness avoided (often at all costs). But I’m starting to suspect that is not actually true, and that the pursuit of happiness is in fact one of the contributing factors to unhappiness.

Thankfully it seems I’m not alone in thinking this. Psychologists like Roy Baumeister, Martin Seligman and concentration camp survivor Victor Frankl all seem to agree that meaning is separate from happiness. Crucially, while happiness is fleeting and often produced by external circumstances and events, meaning is enduring, transcending both time and the self. The interplay of meaning and happiness seem to (somewhat cruelly) describe the human condition: learning from the past and planning for the future is crucial to meaning, but happiness requires being present.

Leaving aside meaning, I want to focus on the question, if not happiness, then what? Specifically, I think we often forget that there is a lot of space between happiness and unhappiness. Towards the bottom of that space, closer to unhappiness, is the feeling of ‘meh’. Things aren’t bad per se, but they’re not good either. Staying in this space for long periods of time is not good for us, and it’s worth putting in substantial effort to getting out of this state. But in between ‘meh’ and happy is a very large space where things are not perfect, but quite good. Let’s call this space ‘contentment’.

I suspect that this is a space where many of us spend a lot of our time. In this space there are lots of good things: a stable living situation, food and shelter, satisfying employment. But there are also some bad things: maybe a lack of relationships or friendships, a bit too much work and a bit too little pay, that one coworker you simply cannot stand. And while it’s perhaps worthwhile to try and change some of these things, it’s not worth spending a large amount of time and effort. Instead, a good life requires learning to rest and abide in this space, without feeling the need to be constantly moving towards ‘happy’.

Contentment is a plateau, if unhappiness is a trench, and ‘meh’ is a plain (it’s ok, but it’s humid, floods sometimes and gets swampy), happiness is the mountain range that can sometimes seem very far away. When you’re content, the air is cooler and clearer, you can see further and get a clearer view of what’s around you. But most crucially, the ground is firm and stable, you can build and settle. That’s something you can’t do either in the swamp, or on the side of a mountain. From the plateau you can take trips to the mountains, even if you need to go down into the plains sometimes. On the plateau, you can live a life.