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?
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.