Secrets to a (Fairly) Fulfilled Life

Oliver Burkeman was a columnist for the for Guardian for a decade, writing life-changing advice.

Oliver burkeman

I’m indebted to the Jungian therapist James Hollis for the insight that major personal decisions should be made not by asking, “Will this make me happy?”, but “Will this choice enlarge me or diminish me?”

Choosing Enlargement
Over Happiness

We’re terrible at predicting
what will make us happy.

When stumped by a life choice, choose “enlargement” over happiness

We’re terrible at predicting what will make us happy: the question swiftly gets bogged down in our narrow preferences for security and control. But the enlargement question elicits a deeper, intuitive response. You tend to just know whether, say, leaving or remaining in a relationship or a job, though it might bring short-term comfort, would mean cheating yourself of growth. (Relatedly, don’t worry about burning bridges: irreversible decisions tend to be more satisfying, because now there’s only one direction to travel – forward into whatever choice you made.)

We’re terrible at predicting what will make us happy

We’re terrible at predicting what will make us happy: the question swiftly gets bogged down in our narrow preferences for security and control. But the enlargement question elicits a deeper, intuitive response. You tend to just know whether, say, leaving or remaining in a relationship or a job, though it might bring short-term comfort, would mean cheating yourself of growth. (Relatedly, don’t worry about burning bridges: irreversible decisions tend to be more satisfying, because now there’s only one direction to travel – forward into whatever choice you made.)

Selflessness is overrated

We respectable types, although women especially, are raised to think a life well spent means helping others – and plenty of self-help gurus stand ready to affirm that kindness, generosity and volunteering are the route to happiness. 

There’s truth here, but it generally gets tangled up with deep-seated issues of guilt and self-esteem. (Meanwhile, of course, the people who boast all day on Twitter about their charity work or political awareness aren’t being selfless at all; they are burnishing their egos.)

If you’re prone to thinking you should be helping more

If you’re prone to thinking you should be helping more, that’s probably a sign that you could afford to direct more energy to your idiosyncratic ambitions and enthusiasms. As the Buddhist teacher Susan Piver observes , it’s radical, at least for some of us, to ask how we’d enjoy spending an hour or day of discretionary time. And the irony is that you don’t actually serve anyone else by suppressing your true passions anyway. More often than not, by doing your thing – as opposed to what you think you ought to be doing – you kindle a fire that helps keep the rest of us warm.

Ask how we’d enjoy spending an hour or day of discretionary time

Ask how we’d enjoy spending an hour or day of discretionary time. And the irony is that you don’t actually serve anyone else by suppressing your true passions anyway. More often than not, by doing your thing – as opposed to what you think you ought to be doing – you kindle a fire that helps keep the rest of us warm.

True security lies in the unrestrained embrace of insecurity – in the recognition that we never really stand on solid ground, and never can.

The Future is Always Uncertain

The future will never provide
the reassurance you seek from it.

Much of our suffering arises from attempting to control what is not in our control

The future will never provide the reassurance you seek from it. As the ancient Greek and Roman Stoics understood, much of our suffering arises from attempting to control what is not in our control. And the main thing we try but fail to control – the seasoned worriers among us, anyway – is the future. We want to know, from our vantage point in the present, that things will be OK later on. But we never can. (This is why it’s wrong to say we live in especially uncertain times. The future is always uncertain; it’s just that we’re currently very aware of it.)

It’s freeing to grasp that no amount of fretting will ever alter this truth

It’s freeing to grasp that no amount of fretting will ever alter this truth. It’s still useful to make plans. But do that with the awareness that a plan is only ever a present-moment statement of intent, not a lasso thrown around the future to bring it under control. 

The spiritual teacher Jiddu Krishnamurti said his secret was simple: “I don’t mind what happens.” That needn’t mean not trying to make life better, for yourself or others. It just means not living each day anxiously braced to see if things work out as you hoped.

The solution to imposter syndrome is to see that you are one

When I first wrote about how useful it is to remember that everyone is totally just winging it , all the time, we hadn’t yet entered the current era of leaderly incompetence (Brexit, Trump, coronavirus). 

Now, it’s harder to ignore. But the lesson to be drawn isn’t that we’re doomed to chaos. It’s that you – unconfident, self-conscious, all-too-aware-of-your-flaws – potentially have as much to contribute to your field, or the world, as anyone else.

Humanity is divided into two

Humanity is divided into two: on the one hand, those who are improvising their way through life, patching solutions together and putting out fires as they go, but deluding themselves otherwise; and on the other, those doing exactly the same, except that they know it. It’s infinitely better to be the latter (although too much “assertiveness training” consists of techniques for turning yourself into the former).

Know when to move on

Know when to move on. And then, finally, there’s the one about knowing when something that’s meant a great deal to you – like writing this column – has reached its natural endpoint, and that the most creative choice would be to turn to what’s next. This is where you find me. Thank you for reading.

Remember: the reason you can’t hear other people’s inner monologues of self-doubt isn’t that they don’t have them

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