Perfectionism and the Pursuit of Happiness

As humans are intrinsically imperfect, it is likewise accurate to say that striving for excellence and a constant feeling of happiness is innate in all of us:

‘… it is the nature of human beings to grow continually taller and wiser in an indefinite progress towards perfection.’ (Russell)

We nowadays consider perfectionism as the belief that one may attain total satisfaction in one’s own self and in the work they do. Oftentimes, perfectionists feel most at ease when every aspect of their life is meticulously organised well in advance and there is a certain repetitive pattern in their daily routine which allows them to predict what their activities are going to be and, consequently, perform at the best of their abilities. Why do perfectionists seek stability and order in their daily life? The purpose is for them, as for everyone else on earth, to pursuit happiness, which may mean being confident in one’s physical, emotional and psychological condition as well as feeling that one is using one’s own abilities at their furthest extent to obtain personal success and to contribute to society overall. As much as this explanation appears to be straightforward, it is true that the concept of happiness partly relies upon oneself as well as on external conditions that are beyond the individual’s control. In particular, a major obstacle to reaching happiness concerns a sense of powerlessness and disappointment with one’s life, often ignited by oppressive societal expectations, fear of failure and competitiveness which eventually end up inducing damaging effects on single individuals.

As a matter of fact, reaching a state of happiness is often prevented by public opinion and by placing ourselves in relation to others, particularly in academic and work environments where competition and comparison create the idea of life as a contest. Consequently, the pressure of having to dominate over everyone else and the fear of failure in not being able to achieve success bring perfectionists to suffer from insecurity, anxiety and guilt. In order to succeed in life, a perfectionist tends to choose tasks they know they can complete successfully and to direct their attention exclusively on the quality of the finished product, thus overlooking the learning process and the entire experience on its own. Due to elevated personal and societal standards and frequently harsh self-criticism, a perfectionist will not only focus and drain their mental strength on one single interest, but they will effectively miss out on any form of enjoyment or realisation from the said activity:

“The habit of looking to the future and thinking that the whole meaning of the present lies in what it will bring forth is a pernicious one. There can be no value in the whole unless there is value in the parts.” (Russell)

From here comes a feeling of resentment and the realisation that one is missing out on all the pleasures of life. Perfectionists will, therefore, be pervaded by a sense of disappointment in themselves which will effectively make it difficult for them to experience contexts foreign to them. For instance, studying in cultural environments which constantly test individuals on their writing skills and, therefore, require a high standard of such abilities, might partially affect some students who devote most of their time and energy on academic essays and written assessments, thus not allowing them to pursue any personal writing experiences. As these undoubtedly competitive environments are overflowing with talented writers, it is often discouraging for perfectionists to explore their own capabilities further, which lets them fall prey of their own self-criticism and the potential unsympathetic public comments. Due to this sense of overwhelming pressure, perfectionists will feel like they will not be able to enjoy life at its fullest and to reach a level of self-confidence that would allow them to open up their possibilities.

Is there a solution to this feeling of self-loathing and insecurity? Surely there are options that will help people find pleasure in whatever they are doing, but, of course, everything depends on each individual’s self-consciousness. British polymath Bertrand Russell believed the path towards happiness starts with accepting that a balanced vision of life is innately uncertain and that we should adapt to our own imperfections in order to enjoy it fully. Due to the instability of aspects such as personal relationships and career roles as well as our own biased and often illusory perceptions of ourselves and others, any form of self-criticism, public opinion or comparison is never entirely reliable and fixed. In order to better appreciate our life, Russell suggests undertaking numerous activities which speak to our interests for their own sake rather than for their outcome:

“The whole antithesis between self and the rest of the world … disappears as soon as we have any genuine interest in persons or things outside ourselves.” (Russell)

In conclusion, an honest recognition of life’s unpredictability and of our own limitations will ensure that our focus is addressed towards several pleasurable opportunities and it will make certain that we regard our own well being as something that is also essential.

Note: Quotes from Bertrand Russell’s Mysticism and Logic and Other Essays, The Conquest of Happiness and The Happy Life


[Domenico Di Rosa, he/him, @_itsdomenicobitch]

[Image Credit: cottonbro]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s