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Perfection Is Unattainable: Aim for 80 Percent

Happiness is letting go of what you think your life is supposed to look like.

Key points

  • Curb your enthusiasm: producing at 80 percent of your capacity may make you a lot happier.
  • For a lot of high achievers, performing at 80 percent is still like everyone else's 120 percent.
  • Perfection may not be realistic, but achieving “good enough”—the 80 percent mark—certainly is.
 Andre Furtado/Pexels
Source: Andre Furtado/Pexels

Letting go of what you think life's supposed to look like may best underscore an August 2022 study of the pursuit of happiness.

Writing in PLOS Computational Biology, the authors describe “why we are prone to becoming trapped in a cycle of never-ending wants and desires” and suggest “constantly arising aspirations” help in “achieving better performance, but also result in ever-increasing dissatisfaction.” Given the “explosion of choices in modern times, learning to accept good enough will increase satisfaction and simplify decision-making.”

Other researchers concur. In a 2018 study appearing in The Journal of Behavioral Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry, scientists conclude “negative [self-]evaluation processes” may be associated with “intractable conflicts between self-set inappropriately high goals and [one’s] own capacities to perform.” These “conflicts” can lead to mental health issues, including depression, anxiety, and mood disorders. Some have suggested that aiming for a success rate of about 80 percent is preferable to 100 percent, ensuring continued growth in learning and engagement. As one life coach put it, “We need to expect less of ourselves.”

Twenty percent reduced productivity oftentimes leads to 50 percent more happiness. And, of course, once a goal is achieved and confidence gained, one always has the opportunity to raise the bar. Some super-successful patients of mine have said their gardener or maintenance worker seems happier than they are. Indeed, setting—and achieving—smaller goals can cause the brain to release dopamine, a neurotransmitter that makes a person feel good—even happy, and boost one’s self-esteem. Higher self-esteem enhances overall mental health.

All of which begs the question, what is happiness? Is it simply subjective, perhaps relative, a matter of perception, a byproduct of brain chemistry, or a combination of everything?

What Is Happiness?

For centuries, experts have been on a chase to understand and define the ever-elusive concept of happiness. Ancient Greek philosophers considered the source of happiness to be a combination of hedonia—pleasure, reward, and a state of relaxation—and eudaimonia—the “sense of a life well-lived,” according to Heather Craig, BPsySc, author of the 2019 article "Psychology of Happiness: A Summary of the Theory & Research."

In recent times, researchers have been looking for more physical, measurable components of happiness. They have isolated parts of the human genome to find genetic underpinnings for the happiness experience, as reported in Nature Genetics, and examined human brains to find neurological sources. Indeed, in a study published in Scientific Reports, investigators used magnetic resonance imaging to scan volunteers’ brains, concluding that those with the highest scores on happiness follow-up surveys also had more gray matter in a cortical area of the brain known as the precuneus.

Meanwhile, authors affiliated with the Stanford Graduate School of Business note in an article entitled "The Psychology of Happiness" that both the desire for happiness and an inability to find it are universal. They define true happiness as “savoring experiences, practicing gratitude, and cultivating mindfulness,” mindfulness being the ability to live life always in the present, rather than to dwell on the mistakes or problems of the past or to worry about a future that may never happen. As John Locke wrote, "what worries you masters you."

Other psychologists and scientists say happiness is based on the quality and strength of our familial and social relationships or on the standards that we employ to evaluate ourselves and our accomplishments. “We compare ourselves to our peers and the norms that are most familiar to us. Our conscious recognition of these peers and norms is what sets our expectations, shaping our self-image and happiness,” writes John G. Cottone, Ph.D., in a January 2022 Psychology Today post.

Is It All About Perception?

Maybe Aristotle is right after all—that happiness depends upon ourselves. The capability to be truly happy is in us, including the ability to set achievable and satisfiable goals. Perfection may not be realistic, but achieving “good enough”—the 80 percent mark—certainly is.

Researchers working in the field of positive psychology say happiness is derived from “positive emotions” emanating “from optimistic perceptions.” In a study published in a 2019 issue of the journal Emotion, they conclude that one’s ability to practice mindfulness leads to a greater sense of well-being.

“To achieve mindfulness, individuals may engage in meditation—a practice that specifically instructs individuals to stop attempting to exercise control over environmental outcomes.”

Justin Halberda, a professor in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences at Johns Hopkins University, says a positive state of mind is created not by how much one might accomplish or gain but by one’s perceptions. As reported in a 2018 article, Halberda cites the results of a study of lottery winners. The winners were asked to rate their level of happiness one year after receiving their rewards. They reported less actual and predicted happiness one year out than a comparable group of participants who had not won any money and about the same level of happiness as trauma victims who had been paralyzed for a year following their injuries.

What Is the Formula for Happiness?

So, what is the true formula for happiness? Here is one possible description:

  • Understand perfection is unattainable. We are all just human. Do your best in achieving realistic goals—whether they be 80 percent, 70 percent, or just 60 percent of your aspirations.
  • Stop comparing yourself—and your successes—to others. Concentrate on living your own life in the best possible way; let them live theirs. Follow moral and ethical standards and you will be delighted with the results.
  • Know you cannot change traffic congestion, a car breakdown, and a washing machine that goes belly up. Control that which is in your power—such as your emotions and responses to different situations—and be willing to cope with everything else happening around you.
  • Consider a 2001 study of the diaries of 180 nuns. Those with the greatest number of positive written expressions regarding their activities and emotions lived, on average, six years longer than those with the fewest positive writings. Happiness is associated with longevity and good mental health.
  • Be grateful for what you have.
  • Live a healthy life—eat nutritiously, exercise regularly, and get an ample amount of sleep.

Finally, for a lot of high achievers, performing at 80 percent is still like everyone else's 120 percent, so just cool it a little bit.

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