We seem to spend most of our lives striving. Striving to earn more money, gain more self confidence, be better parents, travel more, be more attractive, have better relationships -- the list is endless.
We spend a lot of our time and "head space" striving for improvement or things we don't have -- whilst inevitably at the same time being dissatisfied with how things are in the present.
Budhists would say it is this yearning, this desire to have or be something else, which is what actually causes our dissatisfaction. We're so busy looking outward and to the future, comparing ourselves to other people, looking at other possibilities, pursuing goals and focusing on the things that we're not doing or not fulfilling, that we're failing to look inward and appreciate who we are and what we have in the present .
This pressure, striving and yearning for what isn't, can be incredibly stressful. We put ourselves under pressure to change ourselves, to meet certain goals, and this pressure can place a severe physical and mental strain on us.
It is not only this mental state of "not-quite-achieving our goals" that causes us stress -- it is also the day to day effort we have to put into the pursuit of these goals -- for example, commuting long distances and working long hours in order to climb the career ladder or achieve greater material success.
We each have natural tendencies or preferences in the way we behave and interact: some of us are naturally introverted and some more extroverted. We can certainly choose to override these natural compulsions, and in some cases it might be useful to. But in many cases it can feel more natural, enjoyable and fulfilling to accept who we are. To live an authentic life that embraces and makes the most of our natural tendencies rather than trying to battle against them and feeling unhappy with ourselves. Susan Cain explores this issue in relation to people with introverted personalities in her great book Quiet.
In modern life we can often feel pressured to become good at an impossibly wide, and often arbitrary, range of things. We are expected to be funny, highly intelligent, good at sport and great cooks. These qualities make up a particular era's version of an "ideal" person that we so often see on TV and in advertising. We may well each possess some of these qualities, but the idea that we can be everything and have it all is just that -- the ideology of our current society.
It also seems to be common thinking, particularly in the world of business, that if we're not succeeding at something then we are simply not trying hard enough. However, to return to my point earlier, we all have natural abilities and preferences - and the point is that we shouldn't feel hemmed in and limited by these, but understand them, accept them and use them as best we can. Isn't it perfectly OK to say "This isn't a priority for me -- I don't want to try to get better at this. Not being able to do this is my natural state and I'm happy with that."?
These days it can also feel like quantity is more important over quality when it comes to experiences. There seems to be an obsession with "maximizing" and doing everything -- where life simply becomes a process of ticking things off on a list.
We try to have the most complete lives possible. We compare ourselves to other people and say "I want what they've got" like a greedy child in a sweet shop without stopping to realize that their lives are not ours and they are not us. We start wanting things -- including status and belongings -- not for the benefits they bring but for the sake of ticking things off a list and living up to others expectations.
Yet even when we have so much and our lives are full, still we seem to have a fear in the western world of NOT doing things. For example, you could be relaxing in a cafe but have an underlying feeling you should be doing something else. Or you're working in a great job but seeing someone go on holiday, you wish you were too. Again this seems to come back to the idea of desire and attachment. Always thinking we'd be happier doing something else or being somewhere different.
Many readers will have heard the phrase "The paradox of choice," also the name of a very interesting book by Barry Schwartz that shows how having too much choice can actually have a negative affect on us. It becomes more difficult for us to make choices and the stress of making such choices can be bad for us too. We end up spending time and energy making decisions that would be better spent on other things.
If life becomes just a process of ticking things off a list, fitting in as much as possible while constantly looking round to make sure we're keeping up with everyone else, does it have much value? Even if we set ourselves a list of things we genuinely want to do, the completion of this list shouldn't be the thing we take pleasure from, but the experiences themselves.
Rather than constantly planning ahead, thinking about the next experience and looking to some imagined end point, immerse yourself in what you're currently doing, appreciate each step you take and savour the experience. Even the seemingly mundane aspects of life which actually make up the daily reality of our lives in the present.
The truth is that in order to be fulfilled and feel satisfied we first need to have a sense of our own identity and be comfortable with that. If we can stop striving for change and improvement and simply learn to accept and love ourselves for what we are, then we will find greater satisfaction in all areas of our life.
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