I saw this New York Times column by Emily Esfahani Smith last fall and filed it away to reference later. I ended up reading her book, The Power of Meaning: Finding Fulfillment in a World Obsessed with Happiness.
She makes the case that a good life is one that most likely looks quite ordinary and unexceptional. You don’t need to live a life that makes the headlines or history books in order to consider yourself a success. If that’s the measure, very few will ever make it. And we all know of too many famous people whose lives seemed to be especially unsatisfying.
The good life that’s in reach for the vast majority of us, though, is marked by authentic human connection and small, mostly unnoticed acts of kindness and meaningful contribution.
Aiming for fame will frustrate and disappoint, whether you get there or not.
The best bet, I think, is to focus on what you can give instead of what you want to get.
In her column, Smith cites this moving line from George Eliot’s novel Middlemarch:
“the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”
Unhistoric acts of kindness and beauty by those unknown to us have filled our world with much of its goodness. We can pay that forward to the benefit of all while safeguarding our own best chance at a life well lived.