Dissatisfied or Unhappy? Stop Trying to Live the Perfect Life

15/09/2011 11:05 BST | Updated 09/11/2011 10:12 GMT

We all must face adversities in life: being human means facing illness, bereavement, heartbreak and hard times. If we're lucky - and make good choices - life might go easy on us. But for many people, life can seem like one disaster after another. We weather one storm only to see more dark clouds massing on the horizon. Especially for those of us who work hard to heal ourselves of past hurts and believe in lifelong personal growth, this can seem doubly unfair - all the effort we have put into thinking and behaving more positively is swept aside by an event over which we may have no control.

When I find myself at a low ebb, or am sympathising with someone about the many hardships they face, I am always reminded of the opening line of M Scott Peck's The Road Less Travelled: 'Life is difficult.' In what is probably the best self-help book ever written, Peck argues that it's not the hardships we face that cause us most grief, but the way we think about and respond to them. Specifically, the idea that life should always be good - relationships happy and stable, finances in good order, body and mind strong and healthy - causes us no end of upset, because the gap between our fantasy life and the often-troublesome real one we're living is way too large.

This is one reason I find the dominant values of modern Western culture so worrying. We are now bombarded with messages from every angle - the internet, reality TV, glossy/gossip mags, tabloid newspapers, advertising - that to be happy and worthwhile we must be young, skinny, sexy, sassy, rich, famous, fashionable, driving the right car and dwelling in a huge, lavishly decorated home (women) and young, muscular, virile, rich, famous, powerful, popular, wearing designer gear, driving the right sports car and living in a sleek, shiny bachelor pad (men).

The idea that youth is the only time we can be happy and that old age should be resisted at all costs is especially harmful; as is the pressure for women to look like freakishly skinny models - a key factor in eating disorders like anorexia, bulimia and binge eating. It seems to me that the idea of 'good enough' could helpfully be applied to every area of our life: a good enough body, which may not be skinny or sporting a six-pack but is at a healthy weight and reasonably fit. A good enough relationship, which gives us love and support without requiring grand passion or daily fireworks in the bedroom. A good enough home, which keeps us and our loved ones safe and warm (which would, let's remember, be a palace in poorer parts of the world).

Aiming for this good enough existence - which inevitably includes as many downs as ups - will increase your resilience. Psychologists increasingly see this mental attribute as key to avoiding common problems like chronic stress, because you have greater resources to weather those storms and recover quickly once they have passed.

Finally, remember that a good enough life is also rich with pleasure, satisfaction and joy. To paraphrase M Scott Peck: 'Life may be difficult, but it is also wonderful.' Only when we let go of our desire for the perfect existence can we truly accept this.