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Improvement ≠ Happiness

What happens when our identity and fulfillment rests solely on becoming better?

February 12, 2022


It’s easy to gain fulfillment from working towards something. This is beneficial mindset for several reasons, namely personal growth, and while there is nothing wrong with wanting to get better, we tend to lose track of why we started something to begin with. We end up wanting to improve for the sake of improvement, which will only leave you hurt and wondering the point of it all.

A past example

Gaming is the perfect example from my own life. I’ve been a gamer for almost as long as I can remember.

As early as first grade I had an ancient, beat-up laptop and a brand new Wii. I gamed for nine years until one day everything changed. I didn’t want to play for fun anymore. I wanted to be better, and slowly but surely, I put in the practice to improve in the game, Overwatch. I went from the bottom of the barrel bad all the way up to the highest ranks in the country. Much to my own astonishment, I was in matches with actual gaming professionals, which was pretty much a childhood dream of mine. However, I know for a fact that it wasn’t as glamorous as I remember it.

Reminiscing tints the past, and the reality was that I began to despise anything and everything about my situation. The joy I got from gaming was no longer because I was having fun but solely based on my performance. At my peak, I plateaued. I was angry because I was becoming worse, or rather, I wasn’t getting better. No matter how much I practiced, nothing changed. My entire identity at the time felt like it was slipping away to factors beyond my control, but I kept pushing anyway. I worked myself to the point of permanent burnout in the name of getting better. Now, I’m not sure if I’ll ever enjoy another video game again.

Success is temporary

No matter how talented I become, there will always come a day where I will be a shell of what I used to be, and chasing the high of nostalgic joy is absurd in every meaning of the word. No matter what I do to try and get back to the same sensation, it will never be the same. The grass was greener back then, but at the same time, things weren’t all that cracked up as we remember them.

If we stake our fulfillment and pleasure on improvement, we’re asking for a life filled with misery. We’ll be chasing fleeting happiness rooted in grinding instead of happiness to last a lifetime. That comes from simply enjoying what you do, mundane or not. Doing activities only because we are good at them is setting ourselves up for failure in an inevitable future where we will all suck. If we choose that path, our sorry selves will only be left chasing the elusive feeling of improvement in a situation where it’s no longer possible. And if we do find ourselves in that situation, all we can do is accept it as it is. Sometimes it’s better to move on and accept that some things will always be lost, not because we’re not capable, but because we choose to let go.

I’ve been in situations where I have tried new things because they seemed fun, but at some point, the fun is replaced with an insatiable desire to get better. This is ultimately what we need to avoid. That initial joy becomes overshadowed by external motivation. I think we push ourselves to do more and be more, not because we enjoy working ourselves to the bone, but because more often than not, we care about the recognition and reward more than doing the actual activity itself.

Improvement, fame, glory, you name it, should only be secondary to finding joy in the activity itself. Those kinds of motivators are extrinsic to us when we really need to be looking for intrinsic ones, which are especially difficult to describe. Intrinsic motivators are the ones that make you feel like a kid again, where you don’t need a reason to do something. You do it because you can and because it makes you feel good. It’s that simple, but it depends on the individual. Sometimes we might even convince ourselves that something is making us happy when in reality we are lying to ourselves the whole way. The only way to avoid that is by constantly peeling back the layers of our psyche, asking why we’re doing something, over and over again. It’s a constant source of self-evaluation, but the alternative is much worse.

Some people might summarize the idea of finding joy before success with the quote “good things come to those that wait”. In my opinion, this is completely backward thinking. It makes us feel like we’re entitled to something because we put in the time and effort, when in reality no one is entitled to jack. I think a more accurate statement might be, “good things come to those who aren’t looking for them”. It may sound like wisdom from your cryptic grandparents, and it makes literally no sense, but that’s the truth. If you are doing something in your life because it makes you happy, good things are already coming to you. Anything else is just a bonus.