Find the right balance between improving your situation and enjoying it
There's a funny scene in the film "Thank you for smoking" where the main character, a public relations shill for the cigarette industry, is asked how he can do such an unethical job. "Everyone's got to pay the mortgage", he replies.
This is an extremely good analysis of modern life in developed countries. Most people are just doing what they have to in order to pay the mortgage. And usually, it's on a house that's much bigger and grander than they actually need. In some cases, you can replace mortgage with fancy car, expensive holiday, or school fees. And then of course, there are the more abstract rewards such as recognition and status.
The point is that many people are prepared to do all sorts of unethical and crazy things, just to fund their lifestyle choices. They're prepared to work seventy hour weeks, lie, bully and make themselves miserable - simply in order to get what are seen as the rewards of modern living.
In fact, you could almost say that's the crux of our modern culture. If the hippies of the 1960s were urged to "Turn on, tune in, and drop out", today the mantra is "Set goals, work hard, reproach yourself for personal weakness, and work even harder".
Not that there's anything wrong with hard work and trying to improve your situation. But remember to keep an eye on the end goal. It isn't - or shouldn't be - to get a big house, a fast car, high status or global admiration. It's simply to make yourself and those you care about happy. That's the ultimate reward in life, and like all roads used to lead to Rome, all goals should lead to happiness. Every other achievement should be a means to that one simple end.
One of the big problems I see with the modern rewards system is that many people are being sold false beliefs. A big house, a fancy car, status and admiration are all nice things to have, but they're not enough to make you happy in themselves.
In fact, if you put too much effort into improving your situation through gaining these trinkets - by doing things that make you uncomfortable, stressing yourself out, and giving up all your leisure time - you're almost certain to make yourself unhappy. So unhappy that the best house in the world is unlikely to make you feel any better.
Work diligently, be serious about the things that need to be taken seriously, and set yourself goals. These are all key secrets to success. But at the same time, find the right balance between improving your situation and enjoying it.
There's no point giving up your happiness in order to obtain status goods that will supposedly make you happy. You're likely to be disappointed when you reach what you've aimed for. We're simply not wired that way.
Sacrificing today for a better tomorrow is an admirable undertaking. Just make sure that one day that golden tomorrow arrives - hopefully sooner rather than later.
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