How good is “good enough?”

A Delaware Wave reader emails that her father always cautioned her that ‘the grass is always greener,’ i.e., that she should always search for something better than what she already has. She wonders if endlessly searching for ‘something better’ could keep you from fully enjoying what you have right now.

‘The grass is always greener’ is, in fact, a fallacy. The error isn’t in wanting something better when (or if) something better is actually available.  The error comes from NOT knowing what you want, but still believing that whatever it is, it will be better when (or if) you find it. It’s placing the psychological cart before the horse.

You can’t know if something is better until you know what it is. An example is the person in a relationship who wants something different — but doesn’t know why. Or the person who feels he’s in the wrong career but can’t come up with any alternative. Neither compares to the healthy person who may not be happy with what he has, but definitely knows what he wants, and why it will be better. And when it comes along, he’ll know it.

A lot of this ‘grass is greener’ attitude stems from low self-confidence. ‘Who am I to know what I want?’ In my experience I’ve discovered that a surprising number of people know that they should choose what they want, but can’t figure out how to do it. The all-American values of freedom and opportunity become emotional burdens to those who want to love life but don’t know how to make choices.

Some people tell me that no matter what they have or what they accomplish, it will never be good enough. But when I ask them what ‘good enough’ is, they can’t tell me. That ‘impossible perfectionism’ can lead to chronic dissatisfaction with a relationship, a career, or any decision. If this attitude could talk, it might say, ‘I ordered the steak. I liked it a lot, but I’m worried that the chicken might have been better.’ A healthy person would say, ‘Wow, the steak was wonderful. It’s a good restaurant, and when I go back, maybe I’ll try the chicken.’

A man who arrived at my office crippled by anxiety and depression once told me, ‘No matter what decision I make, I feel like there was another choice I could have made that might have been better.’ Bingo! If you follow that premise all the way to its inevitable conclusion, you end up with a pervasive sense that life is futile. Most people don’t let it get that far, but many allow it to burden their enjoyment of life with unnecessary anxieties and doubts. The solution? Be aware of your feelings so you can be aware of — and change — cognitive distortions in those feelings. And the way to change them is to think about them. Because we ‘feel’ what we think, we can change our feelings by changing the way we think.

The ‘grass is green’ in a lot of places. In order to feel like you missed an opportunity, you must have had a number of choices to begin with. When you have alternatives, you can then cope in one of two ways. The first is, ‘No matter what I choose, I’m going to miss out on something that might have been better.’ Oops’there it goes again! Or, you can look at it like this: ‘They’re all good choices. I have to pick one, but I know it will be good because they’re all good.’ Now this one leads to serenity! How you feel is determined by how you think. Think better, feel better. Period. And it works every time.

We live in an age of choices. In 2008, the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology cited a study conducted at a shopping mall. Shoppers were asked how much decision making they had done that day. Then they were given simple arithmetic problems to solve. Interestingly, the more that shoppers had agonized over choices made earlier in the day, the worse they performed on the math problems. The lesson here is that many people become overwhelmed by their choices. They lack the confidence to tell themselves, ‘I’m capable of making a good decision.’ They also lack the realism to reflect, ‘I have several options, all of them good. No matter which one I choose, I will be OK.’ Many people have a fear of making a mistake. Instead of viewing an error as something from which they can learn, they jump to the conclusion that it’s a catastrophe. In truth, most of them aren’t. Like your computer, there are lots of ‘undo’ buttons in life.

Recognize and accept the fact that you have choices, and then develop confidence in your ability to act on them. Sure, the grass might be a little greener someplace else, but you’ll still be confident and at peace with the decisions you make.