We're expected to strive for nothing less than perfection – in our partners, postcodes and jobs. Suzanne Harrington wonders if settling for what we have is really so bad
We all know people for whom contentment remains permanently elusive because they live on the wrong street or in a house with the wrong-sized rooms facing the wrong way, or with partners who wear the wrong clothes and like the wrong bits of culture.
This is exhausting for everyone involved, and self-defeating for the individual trapped inside their own perfectionist bubble.
Perfectionism is a form of mental illness where nothing is ever good enough, and the futility of it is never more glaring than in the unending pursuit of unattainable physical beauty by so many women, bullied by media images and messages telling us that if we just work a bit harder, eat a bit less and spend a lot more on beauty products, we may one day get there in the end.
So we bleach, pluck, wax, shave, scrub, shine, spray, dye, paint, nip, tuck, suck, squeeze, lift. We hire personal trainers, we starve ourselves on crazy diets, we say no to dessert, we fall for every ridiculous gimmick from caffeinated tights to nasal feeding tubes, and we pay plastic surgeons to perform medically unnecessary operations.
We have fake hair, eyelashes, nails, boobs, teeth and tans. When will we be good enough? When will we accept that, yes, we have droopy boobs, lardy thighs or a massive conk on a lopsided face; that our beauty is how we really are, rather than under a mask of artifice?
When will we ever say, 'enough already', that we can't airbrush reality?
It's not just about beauty: this constant hunger for perfection, this obsession with striving. We worship striving and strivers – the cut-and-thrusters who get ahead, who are never content to stop shoving forwards, upwards, towards more and better and perfect.
This isn't anything new. The English philosopher Thomas Hobbes wrote about our "perpetual and restless desire for power after power, that ceaseth only in death".
The English romantics were keen on it, too; the last line of Tennyson's 'Ulysses' poem is all about "To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield". And that was before capitalism ever took hold.
The 20th-century economist Tibor Scitovsky, best known for his work relating human happiness to material consumption, coined the phrase 'The Joyless Economy', where, writes social philosopher Robert E Goodin, Scitovsky highlighted how "satisfaction of one desire leads to arousal of another, leaving people constantly dissatisfied and questing for more".
Happiness is always around the next corner, providing you have enough money to buy it.
Faster cars and bigger houses aside, our innate capacity for hedonic adaptation – that is, getting used to and bored with the good stuff as well as the bad – means that humans are pre-programmed to strive.
This is probably sensible in evolutionary terms – without it, perhaps we would have died out like the dinosaurs – but in this era of long-term comfort and stability, is it any good for our peace of mind?
Does everything have to be perfect all of the time?
Or can we just muddle along sometimes, not quite sure where we are going or what we are doing?
In terms of striving, there appear to be areas of non-negotiability. Such as romance. When Lori Gottlieb published 'Marry Him: The Case For Settling For Mr Good Enough' in February 2010 – just in time for Valentine's Day – she caused minor outrage among womankind.
With chapters entitled 'How Feminism F***ed Up My Love Life', 'Dump The List, Not The Guy', and 'It's Not Him, It's You', you can see why; in her original piece published in 'The Atlantic', she suggested that women over 30 who were unconcerned about being unmarried were "either in denial or lying".
You can see how that would have irritated entire demographics of single ladies.
Having had a baby by sperm donor in her late 30s, Gottlieb wrote: "My advice is this: Settle! That's right. Don't worry about passion or intense connection. Overlook his halitosis or abysmal sense of aesthetics. Because if you want to have the infrastructure in place to have a family, settling is the way to go." Overlook his halitosis? Yikes. Sperm donors never sounded more appealing.
However, while Gottlieb's book tends to caricature women as neurotic perfectionists, and men as blameless innocents, there may be a shred of truth in suggestions such as 'Don't Be Picky, Be Happy'.
"The goal was to go out and become 'self-actualised' before marriage," wrote Gottlieb about herself. "I didn't imagine that one day I'd be self-actualised but regretful."
In his book 'On Settling', Robert E Goodin quotes poet and scholar Linda Gregerson writing about the unappealing Mr Good Enough: "Where's the line between compromising and settling, and at what age does that line seem to fade away? By 40, if you get a cold shiver down your spine at the thought of embracing a certain guy, but you enjoy his company more than anyone else's, is that settling or making an adult compromise?"
Madam, it is neither. Anyone who sends a cold shiver (as opposed to a hot one) down your spine at any age is absolutely not boyfriend material. This guy is your friend, not your lover – even if he doesn't have halitosis.
Yet it is a truth universally acknowledged that for women, sticking rigidly to The List can be the opposite of giving romance a chance; we can be insanely prescriptive in terms of looks, height, earnings, education, work, background, the lot.
You might think you're weeding out, but in reality you're ruling out – which, instead of enhancing your options, just ends up narrowing them. Open-mindedness and open-heartedness is the key, unless you want to end up with someone as shallow as your list of requirements.
Obviously, you don't want to settle for someone who physically repels you, but does a man have to be at least six feet or earn at least six figures before you will even meet him for coffee? This is the opposite of settling; it is setting your bar impossibly out of reach, making it impossible to connect with others.
What is not explored at all within this idea of settling is the notion of blissful solitude. That's because society disapproves of women who are happy alone and reluctant to settle down with Mr Settled For.
Single women are seen as incomplete and they upset the apple cart of our paired-up culture.
But should you ever consider it? Settling, that is?
Our automatic answer is a shriek of no, of course not, not ever, for any reason.
Settling – for anything, other than possibly something out of court – means negative compromise, selling yourself short, abandoning hope, losing idealism, and resigning yourself and your options to second best. Doesn't it?
Whether it's a partner, a postcode, a job, or the way you parent, settling is for losers. Isn't it?
Well, not necessarily. It may even be something to aspire to, which sounds insane and counterintuitive, but bear with me.
Goodin believes that ceaseless striving – what we are encouraged and expected to do, so that everything in our lives is optimal and at its very best – can be soul-destroying, unrelaxing and detrimental to our long-term progress.
In 'On Settling', Goodin suggests that, instead of being non-stop strivers, we calm down a bit and re-examine the dynamics of settling, which he says are not about defeatism or caving in, but about balance.
"Nothing is fixed forever," he says. "Settled intentions can be revisited and revised."
An area where settling might not be such a bad idea is within that other maelstrom of human folly – or parenting, as it's known. Perfectionist parenting is the enemy of child development, because it turns family life into a tense, over-controlled quasi-military exercise with all the mess and joy sucked out.
Remember Donald Winnicott and his 'good enough mother'? Fifty years ago, the analyst and parenting guru wrote about the idea that a mother – the child's primary source of attachment – ought to be free to make mistakes, to fail sometimes. She could be good enough to raise her child, rather than perfect or ideal.
By screwing up – and, more importantly, by being allowed to screw up – the mother shows the child that the world is not a perfect place, that we do not live in a Disney film. The child needs to know this, to prevent catastrophic disillusionment later on.
Today, it's as if Winnicott never existed. Instead, we have what sociologist Frank Furedi calls 'paranoid parenting'.
"There is considerable evidence that children are more creative when their parents are not around to monitor their behaviour," writes Furedi. "A study by Dale Grubb and Alicia Snyder [of the American Psychological Society in 2000] concludes that adult supervision turns play into a structured activity and that this weakens youngsters' drive to experiment.
"Unfortunately, the concept of unsupervised children's activity – what used to be called play – is now defined by child professionals as a risk."
Our perfectionism has turned play into risk. From birth, parents follow their kids around fussing and flapping, measuring and monitoring. And if nothing goes wrong, we invent problems.
Whatever happened to letting kids get on with it, make mistakes, have accidents, and learn how to do life by experiencing life within reasonable boundaries?
Then there's the Tiger Parent syndrome, where hot-housed kids are pushed to excel, or get 'left behind' in the future job market. Could you settle for a kid who grows up without a clue what they want to do in life, but settles for a McJob while they figure things out? Or would the idea of parenting a non-high achiever fill you with shame?
Who among us has not had a truly awful job – or, in my case, dozens – on the way to doing something you like a bit better? This is the balance between settling and striving which Goodin advocates as a way of enjoying the ride, rather than holding your breath until you reach an ever-retreating destination that may not even exist anyway.
For lots of people, ambition is just stress in three syllables. Not all of us want to work a 60-hour week in order to make more money or climb higher on the corporate ladder, or gain more power or prestige; some of us like to tootle along at our own pace, rather than hurtling through life so that it all becomes a meaningless blur.
But is such settling – that is, working at a pace which you are genuinely happy with, and gives you time to smell the flowers along the way – a lame cop out or the intelligent option?
The dad in the movie 'Little Miss Sunshine', desperate to sell his self-help book, is the perfect example of striving gone wrong; so is Gordon Gekko in ' Wall Street'. Striving has emasculated the former; dehumanised the latter. Both are a wonderful advert for the intelligence of settling in the workplace, of accepting where you are.
When striving becomes obsessional and single-minded, to the detriment of a balanced life, you have to wonder at its wisdom.
The Buddhist idea of the liberation of commitment could equally be applied to the liberation of settling – for now, this is all right. Pausing to regroup does not mean giving up; it just gives us some time to breathe.
Or, as Goodin concludes, "We need a judicious mixture of settling and striving in our lives. The striving side of life is where the action is, the settling side is an indispensable complement to the striving side" – ie, they balance each other out.
So perhaps we should settle on settling sometimes.