Here's some counterintuitive news. You should aim for The Good Enough Life.
Oh, I know. It sounds pathetic, defeated: the goal of someone who lacks high standards and a good work ethic, someone who is willing to settle for mediocrity. Not a doer; a pessimistic loser.
Well, happiness experts say satisfaction is largely a matter of expectations. Expectations can sink you. You always thought you would live in a nice house with a double-car garage, have a couple of lovely children, an influential, well-paid job, a devoted spouse and savings in your bank account.
And when you don't? Yeah, help yourself to a slice of misery pie.
On the other hand, when you don't expect much, when you manage the ideas of what you think your life should be, you can be pleasantly surprised - and grateful - for the good fortune that comes your way.
The trouble is, that attitude doesn't fit with society's prevailing imperatives. There's a fundamental tension at play in how we're encouraged to think about our lives. We're exhorted to achieve our dreams and never give up, to think positive, and yet the resulting expectations - some unrealistically high - can make us dissatisfied, even depressed.
Go ahead, start by blaming your parents. "Have you ever heard a parent say 'I only want what's good enough for my children?' " offers Barry Schwartz, a professor of social theory at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania and author of The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less.
"You can't even get that sentence out, can you?" he says, laughing. "Whatever standards we have for ourselves, they're not true for our children. We create people who are perfectionist because they observe us trying to provide the very best, showing us day after day that good enough is just not good enough for our precious jewels. And when the time comes to make their own decisions, children adopt the same standards."
The idea that realistic parenting might yield happier, more well-adjusted adults is also at the heart of Alina Tugend's new book, Better By Mistake: The Unexpected Benefits of Being Wrong. She identifies a similar tension in the conflicted messages that mistakes should be avoided (and even punished) even though they're our greatest teachers.
"There are no simple fixes but there are ways all of us can shift our thinking about mistakes, starting with our children," she writes. "We can emphasize effort and de-emphasize results. We can appreciate that we - and they - can't be perfect, nor is it a goal we should aim for."
Apart from the influence of parents, Prof. Schwartz also fingers the culture of abundant choice. Everything about modern Western life encourages a pursuit of "the best," he says, adding that "every time a company comes out with a new product they're trying to convince you it's the best so you will throw out the old one. This notion of best so suffuses the culture that you almost look like a shirker if you go through life trying to live the good enough life."
The solution is not about lowering standards, he says. It's about adjusting the way we think. "High standards are very different from wanting or expecting the best all the time," he says.
And the same is true for how we should think about our personal accomplishments. "Having very high standards of achievement - working hard, persevering, not being satisfied with what is merely acceptable - no doubt spurs people to achieve things that they would otherwise not achieve," Prof. Schwartz says. "But there's a crucial difference between shooting for perfection, realizing you can't achieve it and yet still being satisfied with your accomplishments and shooting for perfection, thinking you can and should achieve it and thereby living a life of misery and perpetual disappointment."
What's required for a contented life is a personal investigation into what matters most. "It's having to figure out what is worth pursuing. If you have high standards, you need to say 'this is what's important to me,' in a job, in a college, in a relationship, in a house or whatever. It takes more reflection than simply allowing externally imposed ideals dictate what you should want."
Of course, increasing age can make a person adjust the sails on her ship of expectations. Who among us mid-lifers hasn't had to weather the knocks of life and realize that sometimes just being healthy, solvent and connected to good friends is more important than the big job you lost, the marriage that failed or the house you had to sell?
"It's about how you redefine what is excellence," observes Dominique Browning, author of Slow Love: How I Lost My Job, Put on my Pajamas and Found Happiness. The former editor of House & Garden lost her job when the magazine folded in 2007 and found herself reeling from a number of changes. Her two sons had left home. Her post-divorce relationship of 10 years ended. She sold her "forever" house and downsized to Rhode Island. A high-achiever, accustomed to the kind of success people could see from the outside - a limo lift to a high-powered job, a house in New York, a social life among the media elite - she was suddenly adrift, caught in a "feeling of loss and disintegration."
But one step at a time, she built a new life - freelancing, working in her garden and enjoying the beauty of each day - that didn't have all the external markers of fulfilled expectations that she once had. "It's about making a distinction between structure and values," the now-55-year-old explains on the phone from Rhode Island. "My values remain the same. You can still keep your values even if you lose the structure, which can look like failure to others. I want to do the best that I can do. I care about meaningful work. I want to work with people I admire. I want to grow and I want to overcome fear.
"That's how I would define my good enough life. That's not defeatist. It's the best life for me."