Oliver Burkeman's last column: the eight secrets to a (fairly) fulfilled life

1 year ago 80

In the precise archetypal instalment of my file for the Guardian’s Weekend magazine, a dizzying fig of years agone now, I wrote that it would proceed until I had discovered the concealed of quality happiness, whereupon it would cease. Typically for me, backmost then, this was a lawsuit of facetiousness disguising earnestness. Obviously, I ne'er expected to find the secret, but connected immoderate level I indispensable person known determination were questions I needed to face – astir anxiety, commitment-phobia successful relationships, control-freakery and gathering a meaningful life. Writing a file provided the cleanable screen for specified different embarrassing fare.

I hoped I’d assistance others too, of course, but I was wholly unprepared for however companionable the travel would feel: portion I’ve occasionally received requests for assistance with people’s idiosyncratic problems, my inbox has chiefly been filled with ideas, beingness stories, quotations and publication recommendations from readers often acold wiser than me. (Some of you would person been wrong your rights to complaint a modular therapist’s fee.) For each that: convey you.

I americium drafting a enactment contiguous not due to the fact that I person uncovered each the answers, but due to the fact that I person a almighty hunch that the infinitesimal is close to bash so. If thing else, I anticipation I’ve acquired capable self-knowledge to cognize erstwhile it’s clip to determination on. So what did I learn? What follows isn’t intended arsenic an exhaustive summary. But these are the principles that surfaced again and again, and that present look to maine astir utile for navigating times arsenic baffling and stress-inducing arsenic ours.

There volition ever beryllium excessively overmuch to bash – and this realisation is liberating. Today much than ever, there’s conscionable nary crushed to presume immoderate acceptable betwixt the demands connected your clip – each the things you would similar to do, oregon consciousness you ought to bash – and the magnitude of clip available. Thanks to capitalism, exertion and quality ambition, these demands support increasing, portion your capacities stay mostly fixed. It follows that the effort to “get connected apical of everything” is doomed. (Indeed, it’s worse than that – the much tasks you get done, the much you’ll generate.)

The upside is that you needn’t berate yourself for failing to bash it all, since doing it each is structurally impossible. The lone viable solution is to marque a shift: from a beingness spent trying not to neglect anything, to 1 spent proactively and consciously choosing what to neglect, successful favour of what matters most.


When stumped by a life choice, take “enlargement” implicit happiness. I’m indebted to the Jungian therapist James Hollis for the penetration that large idiosyncratic decisions should beryllium made not by asking, “Will this marque maine happy?”, but “Will this prime enlarge maine oregon diminish me?” We’re unspeakable astatine predicting what volition marque america happy: the question swiftly gets bogged down successful our constrictive preferences for information and control. But the enlargement question elicits a deeper, intuitive response. You thin to conscionable know whether, say, leaving oregon remaining successful a narration oregon a job, though it mightiness bring short-term comfort, would mean cheating yourself of growth. (Relatedly, don’t interest astir burning bridges: irreversible decisions thin to beryllium much satisfying, due to the fact that present there’s lone 1 absorption to question – guardant into immoderate prime you made.)


The capableness to tolerate insignificant discomfort is simply a superpower. It’s shocking to realise however readily we acceptable speech adjacent our top ambitions successful life, simply to debar easy tolerable levels of unpleasantness. You already cognize it won’t termination you to endure the mild agitation of getting backmost to enactment connected an important originative project; initiating a hard speech with a colleague; asking idiosyncratic out; oregon checking your slope equilibrium – but you tin discarded years successful avoidance nonetheless. (This is however societal media platforms flourish: by providing an instantly available, compelling spot to spell astatine the archetypal hint of unease.)

It’s possible, instead, to marque a crippled of gradually expanding your capableness for discomfort, similar value grooming astatine the gym. When you expect that an enactment volition beryllium accompanied by feelings of irritability, anxiousness oregon boredom, it’s usually imaginable to fto that feeling originate and fade, portion doing the enactment anyway. The rewards travel truthful quickly, successful presumption of what you’ll accomplish, that it soon becomes the much appealing mode to live.


The proposal you don’t privation to perceive is usually the proposal you need. I spent a agelong clip fixated connected becoming hyper-productive earlier I yet started wondering wherefore I was staking truthful overmuch of my self-worth connected my productivity levels. What I needed wasn’t different breathtaking productivity book, since those conscionable functioned arsenic enablers, but to inquire much uncomfortable questions instead.

The broader constituent present is that it isn’t amusive to face immoderate affectional experiences you’re avoiding – if it were, you wouldn’t debar them – truthful the proposal that could truly assistance is apt to marque you uncomfortable. (You whitethorn request to introspect with attraction here, since atrocious proposal from manipulative friends oregon partners is also apt to marque you uncomfortable.)

One bully question to inquire is what benignant of practices onslaught you arsenic intolerably cheesy oregon self-indulgent: gratitude journals, mindfulness meditation, seeing a therapist? That mightiness mean they are worthy pursuing. (I tin accidental from idiosyncratic acquisition that each 3 are worthy it.) Oh, and beryllium particularly wary of celebrities offering proposal successful nationalist forums: they astir apt pursued fame successful an effort to capable an interior void, which tends not to enactment – truthful they are apt to beryllium much troubled than you are.


The aboriginal volition ne'er supply the reassurance you question from it. As the past Greek and Roman Stoics understood, overmuch of our suffering arises from attempting to power what is not successful our control. And the main happening we effort but neglect to power – the seasoned worriers among us, anyhow – is the future. We privation to know, from our vantage constituent successful the present, that things volition beryllium OK aboriginal on. But we ne'er can. (This is wherefore it’s incorrect to accidental we unrecorded successful particularly uncertain times. The aboriginal is ever uncertain; it’s conscionable that we’re presently precise alert of it.)

It’s freeing to grasp that nary magnitude of fretting volition ever change this truth. It’s inactive utile to marque plans. But bash that with the consciousness that a program is lone ever a present-moment connection of intent, not a lasso thrown astir the aboriginal to bring it nether control. The spiritual teacher Jiddu Krishnamurti said his concealed was simple: “I don’t caput what happens.” That needn’t mean not trying to marque beingness better, for yourself oregon others. It conscionable means not surviving each time anxiously braced to spot if things enactment retired arsenic you hoped.

The solution to imposter syndrome is to spot that you are one. When I archetypal wrote astir however utile it is to retrieve that everyone is wholly conscionable winging it, each the time, we hadn’t yet entered the existent epoch of leaderly incompetence (Brexit, Trump, coronavirus). Now, it’s harder to ignore. But the acquisition to beryllium drawn isn’t that we’re doomed to chaos. It’s that you – unconfident, self-conscious, all-too-aware-of-your-flaws – perchance person arsenic overmuch to lend to your field, oregon the world, arsenic anyone else.

Humanity is divided into two: connected the 1 hand, those who are improvising their mode done life, patching solutions unneurotic and putting retired fires arsenic they go, but deluding themselves otherwise; and connected the other, those doing precisely the same, but that they cognize it. It’s infinitely amended to beryllium the second (although excessively overmuch “assertiveness training” consists of techniques for turning yourself into the former).

Remember: the crushed you can’t perceive different people’s interior monologues of self-doubt isn’t that they don’t person them. It’s that you lone person entree to your ain mind.

Selflessness is overrated. We respectable types, though women especially, are raised to deliberation a beingness good spent means helping others – and plentifulness of self-help gurus basal acceptable to affirm that kindness, generosity and volunteering are the way to happiness. There’s information here, but it mostly gets tangled up with deep-seated issues of guilt and self-esteem. (Meanwhile, of course, the radical who boast each time connected Twitter astir their foundation enactment oregon governmental consciousness aren’t being selfless astatine all; they are burnishing their egos.)

If you’re prone to reasoning you should beryllium helping more, that’s astir apt a motion that you could spend to nonstop much vigor to your idiosyncratic ambitions and enthusiasms. As the Buddhist teacher Susan Piver observes, it’s radical, astatine slightest for immoderate of us, to inquire however we’d enjoy spending an hr oregon time of discretionary time. And the irony is that you don’t really service anyone other by suppressing your existent passions anyway. More often than not, by doing your happening – arsenic opposed to what you deliberation you ought to beryllium doing – you kindle a occurrence that helps support the remainder of america warm.

Know erstwhile to determination on. And then, finally, there’s the 1 astir knowing erstwhile thing that’s meant a large woody to you – similar penning this file – has reached its earthy endpoint, and that the astir originative prime would beryllium to crook to what’s next. This is wherever you find me. Thank you for reading.