“Independence…. is loyalty to one’s best self and principles, and this is often disloyalty to the general idols and fetishes.” — Mark Twain
Are you over 30? Then you should be married, have kids, climb the corporate ladder, have a house with a mortgage, go to church on Sunday (depends on religion) and twice a year spend a week or two on vacations.
This is the stereotype in western civilization. This is the blueprint for a normal and happy life. But even if you follow it, does it make you happy? Who says that having a house is a must that will bring happiness to your life? Who says that being married or constantly strive for fancies title at your job is the road to life satisfaction? Who defines how success looks like?
Each of us is different, and one of the biggest reasons why people live unhappy lives is succumbing to cultural habits and expectations instead of focusing on what is important to them as individuals. It is each of us who defines their definition of success.
Have you ever wondered why people in Europe or North America spend so much time accumulating wealth? Is it because we need to? I’m sorry to say this, but no one needs a Ferrari in a garage. I could argue that there are very few things we truly need in life. We probably need something to eat and drink, some basic shelter, and someone to be close with. Well, that’s it, really.
Everything else that we believe we need is just a construct of our minds. I always find it funny when someone tells me that they need a better paying job, a new car, a new phone, or a mortgage. We don’t need these things. In many cases, we don’t even want these things. At least not in our hearts.
We need them because of some secondary reasons imposed on us by ourselves and society in general. You want a better car or a bigger house because it shows status, it proves to your peers that you accomplished something, it makes you feel like you are better than others, and it makes you sort of happy. Until it doesn’t.
I travel a lot, and I love to visit so-called third world countries. I still remember my first trip to Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda a couple of years back. I spent there just several weeks, but I came back a different person. Not that I don’t pursue materialist goals like any other European, I do, but this trip helped me to appreciate what I’ve got. I even asked myself whether we don’t do something wrong in the so-called civilized countries. Just imagine seeing the happy faces of people living below a dollar per day, the pure joy of a child just because there is a visitor in the village. Think when was the last time you appreciated little things the life brings, something as mundane as having fresh water to drink.
The pressure of the surrounding
Yes, if you want to keep living in your country and the society that has certain expectations, there is no way around adjusting, assimilating its values, and do whatever it takes to survive and provide for your family. However, having enough material possessions to get your kids through school is very different from having a TV set in every room of the house.
And that is the crucial distinction you need to make. Don’t take the easy answer that you have to do something.
“I have to take a mortgage I will be paying back for the rest of my life. I don’t have a choice.” How many of us think this way? Why do we believe we don’t have a choice? “Because I need a house.” Why? “Because I need a place to sleep.” Oops, I guess I don’t need a house for that. “So it is because I need to feel at home somewhere, or I need to leave something behind, or I need to feel like my life has a meaning.”
Just consider replacing the “have to” mentality with “want to,” it will bring much more clarity into your life, and you may realize that your priorities are not necessarily set right. Or you would at least stop feeling like a victim. But don’t overdo it. Make sure your “want to” is real and not imposed on you by others.
When we think about the “why,” we often discover that not only our logic was lacking but we very often mix what we need with what we want. And what is worst, what we want is nowhere near to what we “really want,” but rather what is expected by others that we “should want.”
How to break the loop
There is a better way that leads to satisfaction with life. I talked before about the pursuit of happiness versus the pursuit of meaning. I tried to show you that happiness is the wrong goal in the first place. But regardless of whether you aim for happiness or meaning, if you want to have a satisfying life, you need to stop being a slave to the cultural stereotypes.
Here are the steps I would encourage you to consider, to break out of the norms imposed by society and live the life you want to live.
Forget cultural stereotypes. As discussed above, the one thing that makes unhappy people is the feeling that they must conform. Realize that you have other options, and only you can decide whether to live the life you want or the life others around you want you to live.
Figure out what you want. I mean, what you really want. This is not as easy as it sounds, and some people may never find the answer because they are not willing to dig deep. To make it more complicated, what do you want may change with age and accumulated experiences.
Regularly asking yourself what do you want and not settling for the first answer that jumps to mind is critical. For the majority of us, what we want will ultimately be something straightforward like “being loved,” “belonging somewhere,” “being useful,” “keep learning.”
To discover your true answer, you may need a guide to help you not to lie to yourself. You can get a life coach or you can at least start asking yourself a series of “why” questions until there are no more “whys.”
Realize what you are willing to sacrifice. The old adage says, “you can’t have your cake and eat it too.” Even though there are those, who say that “you can have it all,” in reality, you can’t. Or rather you can have everything that you want as long as you want the right things.
The chances are that for you to get what you want, there will be things you will have to sacrifice to get it. For example, if you are living in first world country and decide that your life’s calling is to go and help in developing countries in Africa, the sacrifice you will have to make is abandoning your current lifestyle. If you genuinely want to help others in Africa, this sacrifice will be fine. In fact, it won’t even feel like a sacrifice, even though it will be seen that way by others. If you are not willing to make that sacrifice, then you don’t truly mean that you want to help in Africa. You are just saying it to calm down your conscience.
This is important to emphasize. It is our inability to make the sacrifices that is holding us back. In these situations, it is not the environment or the family that holds us back. It is us not being willing to make sacrifices.
Stop caring what others think about you. The most challenging thing I have ever done, to somewhat limited success, was to stop caring about what others think about me. It may sound a bit self-absorbed, but learning to do what you believe is the right thing regardless of what people around you think is the key to a happy life.
When you care too much about what others think about you or your actions, you will always judge what you do through their eyes and not your own. Ultimately, you will live the life others want you to live. If that life is not aligned with who you are, you may never find fulfillment and happiness. You are giving others power over you. You are willingly becoming a slave to others.
So what now?
Even if you are worried about the first step, and not sure about step three, I would suggest you follow at least with step two. Figuring out what are the things you really want from life is a good beginning on a journey for getting it.
Are you living your own life or are you living the life that your culture or parents wants you to live? Do you think it is right to just blend in with the cultural expectations and just learn to be happy with that or do you think it is right to break the cultural habits?