In a prior post, I summarized the main findings from the 75-year study at Harvard on happiness.
While reading the study, one sentence absolutely jumped off the page at me—”Perfectionism is the number one killer of happiness.”
Am I the only one who finds that shocking? Of all the things that would seem to destroy joy in life, how could trying to improve everything be the worst thing for happiness?
Here is an example from my own life…
For most of my past I have been a high consumer of personal growth content, research, or life tools.
A few years ago, I came across a great tool for intentional living called a Life Plan, which describes all the common life accounts people typically have, and encourages you to develop a long-term vision for your life in each area. For the hyper-achievers, you can even break down your average week into 30-minute blocks and schedule investments into your life accounts.
In this season, I became obsessed with optimizing every area of my life. I devoured research on time management, leadership, finances, parenting, marriage, and spiritual growth.
All good things, right?
But something strange happened, as I became more intentional with my life, I became less happy in many ways. Pretty soon I had taken a wonderful resource and used it to ruthlessly beat myself up for not following it perfectly.
And since perfect doesn’t exist, I could never really celebrate reaching my goals.
The essence of perfectionism is constantly looking for a better option—a better way. Looking for the thing—or the way—that is flawless. How exhausting!
Perfectionism shows up in a lot of areas of life. In fact, author Brene Brown says that nearly all of us are perfectionists in some area—it’s a continuum.
It’s not if you have it, it’s where you have it.
I now personally use what I would call a Life Plan “Lite” in an attempt to avoid any overly rigid or hyper-achieving habits I have. It helps me maintain a general vision for my life and each year, while remaining flexible enough not to increase my stress. And every year it seems to get shorter with less goals.
The Dalai Lama teaches that one of our greatest challenges in life is to be able to set goals without being attached to them. He clearly suggests we try to make the world a better place, but we must remain flexible enough to let go or change course when things don’t go according to the plan (as often happens). I find this to be enormously difficult yet helpful advice.
Here are some common ways perfectionism can damage happiness:
- You procrastinate by waiting for perfect timing and miss opportunities
- Your first product has to be your best version
- You are unable to enjoy victories because you are already setting the next goal
- You place your own brutal standards on others around you and lose relationships as a result
- You develop a performance-based acceptance of yourself and others
- Your life is driven by worry, tension, and anxiety
- You can’t stop upgrading because you need the next best product
- You are inflexible and cannot adapt when life doesn’t go according to plan
- You are never content with your physical body and plagued by body image self-criticism
- Many studies suggest that perfectionism can influence medical problems (like cardiovascular disease and back pain)
- You ruminate about mistakes in the past or planning better for the future, and cannot be present in your life now
- You compare what you have to what others have
Any of these sound familiar?
At the core, it is FEAR that drives the perfectionist. Fear that we might be discovered as less than perfect–-and we manifest it in frantic efforts to avoid the shame that might accompany being discovered as anything less.
A life plagued by the constant voltage of fear is a life without joy. It is also a life without love—love for others around you—and for yourself.
And to quote Brene Brown again, she says that perfectionism is ultimately not for the self, it is a “hustle” to look good for others.
Happiness and the explosion of choice
In a recent study published by the Journal of Consumer Psychology, researchers coined the term “maximizing mindset” to describe when people attempt to choose the best possible option in every given scenario—which leads to regret and dissatisfaction.
Psychologist Barry Schwartz expands upon this idea in his masterful book The Paradox of Choice. I rank this book on my top 10 list of lifetime must reads.
Most people would agree that having no choices in life is almost always a bad thing. But Schwartz argues that we have mistakenly assumed that more choice is always better. He provides a wealth of evidence that this is not the case—citing increases in clinical depression, anxiety, rates of suicide, and divorce statistics—since our choices have increased exponentially.
If you don’t have time for the book, I highly recommend watching his TED talk (link at bottom).
We are living in an unprecedented time in history. We have more choices than we have ever had. The number of possible choices people have today has absolutely exploded.
Nowadays, if you want to buy a pair of jeans, you don’t just have the store down the street. You likely have several shopping malls within driving distance. If you can’t find something there, you can shop from nearly any store on the planet by going online. You have hundreds, if not thousands, of possible options.
This can cause people to feel like they always could have gotten a better combination of price, quality, and preference. It detracts from the joy we might have had with our current purchase by constantly ruminating on the idea that the perfect pair of jeans might still be out there somewhere!
Schwartz distinguishes between two general classes of people which he calls maximizers and satisficers. Maximizers are always looking for the best of everything. Satisficers have high standards, but just look at a couple good options and pick something and move on.
His research suggests that the maximizing mindset can significantly increase your likelihood of depression, anxiety, and unhappiness—by constantly looking for a perfect option that doesn’t exist.
They are tortured by the idea that something better might still be out there.
Even if they find something they like, maximizers continue to ruminate on the idea that an even better option might be out there somewhere.
You can see how this mindset could lead to spending problems, changing jobs too frequently, or lack of commitment in relationships.
Turn information into action
- Go for good enough. I recommend you adopt a “greatism,” not “perfectionism,” mindset. Set a few high standards, find 3 choices that meet your criteria, and pick something! Then stop looking and practice accepting the choice you made. Go for great, not perfect. No rumination!
- Recount 2 wins per night. Here it is again—a regular gratitude practice! I love what Michael Hyatt recommends, as he lays in bed with his wife, they both reflect on 2 “wins” from the day. Great way to go to sleep thinking about what went well instead of what did not.
- Try doing some things messy. Recognize that not everything in life needs to be done well and practice doing some things in a messy way. Maybe try learning a new skill you won’t be good at for a while. Then use that situation as an opportunity to practice self-compassion. If there is one thing the perfectionist needs, it is self-compassion.
- Intentionally limit your life upgrades. Author Josh Becker of the Becoming Minimalist blog has great thoughts on how upgrading our lifestyle rarely adds much value to our lives. In fact, research is crystal clear that constantly upgrading is a primary cause of unhappiness and dissatisfaction with our lives. Perhaps you want to practice “fasting” from upgrades for a period of time and see how you feel.
- Don’t apply perfectionism to every life decision. Some choices just don’t matter that much. Barry Schwartz reached the conclusion that a key life skill in the future of limitless choices would be to know what situations were worth deliberating over, and which weren’t. When making a decision, keep asking yourself if this is worth “maximizing” or not. By the way, this works well in marriage conflicts. If it’s not a big deal, just let your partner decide.
Have a great weekend.
*If you have enjoyed Parker’s blog, check out The Next Peak Podcast that Parker co-hosts. We interview successful leaders and discuss research-based principles that help people win in the workplace without compromising the things that matter most—relationships, a life of purpose, and health.
- Barry Schwartz Paradox of Choice TED Talk https://www.ted.com/talks/barry_schwartz_on_the_paradox_of_choice?language=en
- Brene Brown—The Gifts of Imperfection
- Joshua Becker–The More of Less