Perfection is a complicated topic; no one really knows what it is, but everyone wants a say on what it should be. When taken to the extreme, perfection becomes dangerous and can cause pain and anguish to many people because when one strives for perfection, they will always fall short. This failure then leads to a sense of worthlessness and a feeling that there should be more to life than what our flawed world has to offer. Hardships that accompany perfectionism can be seen clearly when looking at issues such as the nirvana fallacy and the dream of a perfect society. There are ways, however, to overcome perfectionism. In order to find true happiness, one must learn to be satisfied with what they already have, instead of always searching for something greater.
The Nirvana Fallacy
Oftentimes, a person may feel a need to strive for perfection in everything they do. Although the concept of improving in certain aspects of life is not necessarily bad, it is a problem if that need to be perfect stops someone from achieving things because they are worried they might fail. This concept, that perfection is born out of fear, is known as the Nirvana Fallacy.
There are hundreds of illustrations in the modern world of where the Nirvana Fallacy has negative effects on its followers. One example of these negative effects is seen when discussing seat belts. Even though seat belts do not always provide protection from serious injuries, they can still save lives. In 2014, over 50% of the people who died in car crashes in the United States were not wearing seat belts at the time of the crash (“Seat Belts: Get the Facts”). That is over ten thousand people that might have survived had they just strapped themselves in. With a number like that, it would be ludicrous to say that seat belts do not make a difference.
Perfection is unachievable. It is as simple as that. And to strive for something that is already known to be unattainable is to set oneself up for failure. So what is the point in even trying when it is doomed for failure from the beginning? “Repeated failures … produce motivational deficits that translate into weak performances” (Brunstein). It is better to tolerate slight imperfection than to have nothing at all. Humans must learn to be satisfied with what they have, instead of always wanting more.
Like the conundrum of the chicken and the egg, the question arises which comes first, happiness or success? Shawn Achor asked this question and concluded that “happiness causes success and achievement, not the opposite” (Achor 42). Unhappiness caused by constant failure will in fact have a detrimental effect on the path to success. Learning to be grateful will make it easier to gain more because those possessions will be used to their fullest instead of being taken for granted.
Living in a Perfect Society
To live in a perfect society might not be as desirable as it seems. To have a flawless system, all the people under that system must be directed on how to act and work in every situation to ensure that they make no mistakes. These directions, however, leave the people with little to no freedom at all. They would have to be instructed constantly and not allowed to have control over their own lives. Under this “perfect” system, they are slaves. Therefore, it cannot be called a “perfect system” but should instead be defined as “perfect slavery”.
Paul Kirschner explains this concept of perfect slavery as shown in George Orwell’s Animal Farm. Kirschner writes, “The inarticulate, duped by the articulate, have been evicted not from paradise, but from a dream of one: now the very idea of rebellion is dead” (763). Once the pig, Napoleon, had taken full control over the farm, he quickly took away all joy and freedom from his followers in order to ensure that everything was working to his meet his expectations. When any animal showed even the slightest bit of dissatisfaction with his or her situation, Napoleon would extinguish them without a second thought (Orwell 32-33). Because he did not tolerate any misbehavior or failure, Napoleon created a productive system that did as he pleased.
This concept of perfect slavery can also be found today in a village located in the North of Scotland called Findhorn. Founded in 1962, this village was built upon foundations of faith (Spielvogel 231). The founders listened to divine guidance and had to “[communicate] with the angelic kingdom” in order to ensure that all was done properly (232). The people of Findhorn believe that they can recreate the Garden of Eden here on Earth and that their little village is the perfect model of what the world should be. “Findhorn emphasizes the wholeness of all life, the unity or oneness of all life, and the creative divinity inherent in all life” (234). If everyone and everything is equal, then they all must have the same things and the same opportunities. Findhorn is an anti-specialists system, which means everyone tries everything so everyone is also mediocre at everything (Morrison). The people are placed on a job rotation so when someone actually finds a job they are good at and enjoy, they will only have a few days to improve their skill before they must move on to another job. Like the residents of Animal Farm, this society in Findhorn centers its whole being around the commands of their leader instead of allowing each person the freedom to find their own passion. They do what they are told and will go wherever their leader tells them to; they are slaves in a perfect system.
In Sir Thomas More’s book, Utopia, any person convicted of a serious or repeated crime is sentenced to slavery (33-34). But is More’s version of utopia actually? It seems to deal with the issue of crime and only requires 6-hour working days. That seems like a perfect way to live. The issue with this fantastical country, however, is that,
As critical readers, we must doubt that the institutions recommended would in fact produce the way of life depicted. But we cannot doubt that this way of life seems excellent and delightful to the author, else he would not use it to win our acquiescence to his scheme. … we are entitled to regard as unsound the cause-and-effect relationship he affirms between his scheme and his pictures (De Jouvenel 439).
Although More’s Utopia seems like a perfect example of what life should be, it is merely the dream of a perfect world. When played out in reality, most of what is suggested would not actually work.
Overcoming Perfectionist Thinking
Although it may seem that wanting perfection in different aspects of life is good motivation for people to do the best in every situation, it is rarely good to set unattainable goals. Unrealistic goals will only lead to failure, depression, and stress. Rarely will they ever actually assist in achieving success. The same goes for attempting to attain a perfect system; it is not possible. Instead, it is important to understand that no one and nothing is perfect. Although this sort of thinking cannot be eradicated overnight, the first step to doing so is learning to compromise and accept imperfections (“How to Overcome Perfectionism”). Once it is accepted that imperfections are okay, a huge weight is lifted. Suddenly, there is no pressure to be the best in everything, and it becomes easier to enjoy life as it is and be grateful for what is already there.
People who approach life with a sense of gratitude are constantly aware of what’s wonderful in their life. Because they enjoy the fruits of their successes, they seek out more success. And when things don’t go as planned, people who are grateful can put failure into perspective (James as qtd. by Andersen).
Through gratitude, even the negative things in life cannot drag one down because a grateful person can always be happy with what was already achieved instead of becoming focused only on what was not.
The Positive Psychology Movement
Another way to battle the negativities of perfectionism is through the positive psychology movement. This movement, founded in 1998 by Martin Seligman, strives to offer solutions to issues that derive from the need for control (Gubbins). Positive psychology looks for the positive aspects in life and studies them. The goal is to figure out how a person can live a worthwhile life and what makes a person happy. The discipline can assist people in their search for purpose and contentment through suggesting habits that lead to a better lifestyle.
“To what extent does the pursuit of pleasure, the pursuit of positive emotion, the pleasant life, the pursuit of engagement, time stopping for you, and the pursuit of meaning contribute to life satisfaction?” (Seligman). When Seligman and his co-workers began an experiment to answer this question, he expected the results to clearly show that pursuing pleasure would contribute to life satisfaction the most, so he was surprised when the data disagreed. Instead, the results showed that the pursuit of meaning had the strongest contribution followed closely by the pursuit of engagement. Although pleasure is nice, it is nothing without meaning. Everyone needs a purpose to drive them forward in life.
Humans are not perfect and they never will be. So striving for perfection is basically the equivalent of striving for the impossible and never achieving it. Who would want that? Nevertheless, people do aim for perfection and often live unhappy lives because of issues such as the nirvana fallacy and the belief in “perfect” societies. In order to find happiness, we must learn to be grateful and try to see the positive aspects in life. Dwelling on the bad things only makes them worse, but to let these negativities go means to release the bad and make room for the good.